Thursday, November 16th, 2006

Mobile-Unfriendly Websites

Category: Accessibility, Editorial, Mobile, Rails

Phil Greenspun bemoans the difficulty of running modern web apps from his sidekick.

My Motorola/Windows XP phone began to die after two years. Wanting something that would let me keep in touch with friends over AOL Instant Messenger, I got a T-Mobile Sidekick. I was reluctant to get a non-flip phone, but so far I have only managed to make one unintended phone call per day. The Web browser is excruciatingly slow. I’ve found that most of the Web sites developed in the early 1990s work just fine. It is possible to log in, fill out forms, get results. What doesn’t work? The latest and greatest Web sites. They are too script-heavy. Programmers seem to have forgotten that although the average desktop has ever-greater capabilities, the average user is increasingly connecting from a handheld device. I tried using one of my students’ sites from last semester. They lifted some username/password code from a Ruby on Rails toolkit. It relies on JavaScript. The site is 100 percent useless from the Sidekick.

Have we proven that “the better the tools the worse the application?”

Seems unfair to blame Rails for this … Rails makes it just as easy to build accessible websites as it does to build pure-Ajax websites. Can you blame Ajax for this? Yes, a bit … it’s true that most web developers are more focused on delivering rich, interactive, experiences than making sites accessible from the mobile. In this example, it is indeed quite ridiculous that someone created a login page requiring Javascript. For more dynamic applications, though, it’s just not practical or worthwhile to make the site mobile-compatible.

Greenspun mentions that many early ’90s websites work quite well on the phone, but it must be said that many sites created in the late ’90s or early ’00s would work really poorly on the phone, because those were the times when many developers used Flash or Javascript for the sake of it (mmmm…cascading menus) and were oblivious to web standards. A major theme in many Ajax apps is to use well-known web conventions where possible, and augment them with dynamic behaviour where necessary. For that reason, many modern Ajax apps are actually more accessible than their equivalents from a few years back.

Posted by Michael Mahemoff at 3:29 pm

3.9 rating from 23 votes


Comments feed TrackBack URI

Blaming the developer is hardly reasonable. If more handheld devices actually supported media=”handheld” then I believe there would be more sites that worked in both the desktop web browser and mobile devices.

Comment by Ed Knittel — November 16, 2006

I don’t think a developer who writes inaccessible javascript-only code is going to be aware of media=”handheld”

There’s no point blaming the devices either, web development will always be like this

Comment by Gaz Elms — November 17, 2006

Javascript (and CSS, for that matter) was made to _enhance_ a webpage, not be a mandatory part of it. People who write pages that relies on any of these technologies lacks understanding of the technologies they use and could might as well make their site using ActiveX-controls.

Comment by HÃ¥vard Pedersen — November 17, 2006

I didn’t found any debugger for IE mobile in Windows Mobile 5.0. I have to debug by alert().

I ask IE mobile “who are you?” by “alert(navigator.userAgent)” and IE mobile told me it’s IE 4.0 actually.


Comment by Cheng Guangnan — November 17, 2006

This is something I feel very strongly about. I’ve had a mobile device since the days of the Philip Nino and the Nokia 7110. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that I’ve always been very frustrated at the level of support for mobile browsers, and at the lack of consideration for standards by the mobile browsers.

The only way I’ve found to support a mobile browser effectively is by redirecting the page request (server-side) to a mobile version of your site.

To pick up a couple of points though, compatibility (as far as I can see) is about your target audience. Is the site accessible for your target audience? Is your target audience likely to have JavaScript turned off (I can’t believe people still use browsers that don’t support JavaScript)? Is your target audience going to be using a mobile device.

Who has the time to cater to devices, browsers and even standards that do not directly impact your auidence? Who has the money to pay somebody to do that?

I think (as someone who wants to get the most out his mobile access to the web) more consideration should be given to how to get to compatible content more eaisly. And I don’t mean those ‘portals’ with endless pages of dead links. Google’s XHTML search is fantastic for viewing bulky sites.

Comment by Richard Kimber — November 17, 2006

Yeah, i have the same problem riding my moped on the interstate. We should really overhaul our highway system to accomodate people on small and underpowered vehicles…


Comment by Marty — November 17, 2006

I like it.

Comment by Richard Kimber — November 17, 2006

For development of cool web apps for desktops don’t worry about mobiles right now. Mobile useage isn’t high enough to really put forth the time and money into it. Don’t get me wrong eventually having mobile access will eventually be a requirement rather then a nice feature to have. If you want to get yourself prepared for mobiles focus on a good set of open api’s. Then when you decide to go mobile you just need to build a mobile interface to your api’s.

For me I’m building a mobile web site and I can tell you that mobile browsers suck pretty bad. I like what Opera is doing but until they get a bigger install base it’s not really something to bank on. I’m just hoping for support for media=”handheld” and/or some universal header from mobile browsers identifing them as such.

Richard, if your sick of endless pages of dead links try, it’s a mobile search based portal.

Comment by Shawn McCollum — November 17, 2006

Give me effective tools to emulate phones and phone browsers on the computer. Don’t make me buy dozens of phones and make me pay through the nose to afford development and testing – and that’s excluding development cost.

Comment by Mark Wubben — November 17, 2006

@Shawn – If people would have said the same things about the WWW, 10+ years ago none of this would exist. We absolutely need to be working on the mobile web. If we don’t make web sites for the mobile web, browser manufacturers aren’t going to see that its a priority.

The W3C is doing some really cool things with the Mobile Web Best Practices. I think it is worth a read.

A lot of what they recommend for mobile friendly sites is common sense stuff we all should be doing any how.

Comment by Justin Thorp — November 20, 2006

Cellphones give you cancer and kill your sperm.
Save the sperm – make websites inaccessible from mobile devices.
Also, plastic kills sperm and give you cancer as well.
Get a wooden keyboard, or else.

Seriously, there is such a disconnect between the different “browser” versions out there that you only option is to use flat html, with minimal CSS for layout. Offer a link for a mobile/text friendly version of your website. It’s not hard.

Comment by Dan — November 21, 2006

Youtube has a new competitor who has beaten them to launching mobile video sharing. It’s live now from You can upload, share and broadcast your video on mobile phones now. check it out it’s pretty cool and the quality is good. .

Comment by Youtube mobile — June 8, 2007

Network Solutions has launched a mobile website builder that is easy fir novices to use. For $20 a year this is a great solution for a small business to get on the mobile web band wagon.

Comment by sahshib — August 19, 2007

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