Are we ready for the mobile Web?

Mike Nolan at IWMW10 from UKOLN on Vimeo.

IWMW and mobile

During the last couple of days I’ve been attending the IWMW 2010 conference at the University of Sheffield.  With a larger Web team at St Andrews I now get to attend it every second year; this year was my year.

While the overarching theme of the conference was “The Web In Turbulent Times”, predictably there were a number of sessions (both plenary presentations and smaller optional workshops) about and which touched on the mobile Web:

The message was clear: the mobile Web is going to be a very dominant component of Web development in the very near future, so get involved now; be prepared.

The debate over device-specific application (e.g. iPhone app, Android app, Windows Phone app, etc.) or Web app (e.g. using  HTML5 which allows for storage of offline data) is an interesting one.  At the moment I come down on the side of the platform agnostic, available anywhere Web app.

Poor mobile reception

Except that was exactly the problem: I didn’t experience a consistent (or even continuous) mobile phone connection for the duration of my entire journey and stay in Sheffield.

On my return journey from Leuchars to Sheffield I must have experienced a mobile phone signal for around 10% of the time, if that.  It came and went very quickly as we hurtled cross-country, and for much of the time my phone gently drained itself of electricity searching for a signal.

Even in the conference hall in Sheffield mobile coverage was patchy.  My colleague who is on the same network as I am (O2) couldn’t get a signal at all. I was a little more fortunate, but I only had to move my phone less than 30 cm for the signal to drop from a full four bars to none and drop out completely.

The same was true for my room in the accommodation block.

In some parts of the conference hall I could get a faster EDGE internet connection, while in others I could only receive a standard GPRS connection; when I could get a signal at all, of course.

Recent developments

I’m really encouraged to see the recent developments in mobile Web technology. I used Opera Mini for a long time on my Nokia 6100, I now use Opera Mobile on my touchscreen Windows Mobile 6.1 phone and the latest version is absolutely fantastic. (There is even an Opera Mobile emulator now for your PC so you can check how your website will look on a smartphone, which is a very welcome development.)

The HTML5 specification (still in draft) is looking exciting. One of the big things HTML5 offers is that it adds the ability to more easily create Web applications without having to use JavaScript for common elements such as sliders, date pickers, form validation, etc. It also enables browsers to natively handle video and audio without users needing to install a 3rd-party plugin (e.g. Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, Real Player, Windows Media Player, etc.)

A number of universities are now developing mobile portals for their students, whether using an application such as campusM, or Web-based like Mobile Campus Assistant, which is great to see. These applications provide a fast, convenient way for students to see their timetables, campus maps, location and capacity of computer classrooms, library records, etc. And many are geo-aware too, meaning that the application can work out where you are and show you the nearest computer classroom.

One term touched on briefly at the conference was augmented reality. An example might be an application on your phone which geo-locates you an then using your phone’s camera show you an image of the street on which you are standing overlaid with information about the nearest restaurants, for example. The possibilities are very exciting and potentially endless.

Are we ready for the mobile Web?

So, are we there yet?

On Tuesday evening after a drinks reception at the Kelham Island Industrial Museum we were dropped off in town to forage for food. It was raining and as we huddled for shelter in a doorway trying to decide where to go we instinctively pulled out our mobile devices for support.

  • Simon phoned his brother
  • I phoned my friend Danny who’d been at university in Sheffield
  • I also sent a text to Any Question Answered (63336) asking for advice
  • Simon and Duncan pulled out their iPhone SatNav apps to get an overview of the local environment

The result: we wandered fairly aimlessly for about 30 minutes and ended up soaked to the skin sitting in a dingy Pizza Hut the other side of City Hall.

Boy, are we ready for the mobile Web right now! But until mobile coverage is improved, mobile data speeds are increased and augmented reality applications (or similar) are developed and widely supported we’re not quite there yet. But we’re definitely heading the right direction … unlike the group of five Welsh and Scottish Web team members on Tuesday evening on the rainy streets of Sheffield!

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 46 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. Currently on sabbatical. I am a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir.

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