Thoughts @

about context and the mobile web

I actually wanted to post an article on the current state of mobile web browsers but this weeks’ discussions in the blogosphere have been just too interesting for the mobile web development in general that I needed to get some thoughts straight here. I hope they will be useful for the readers of this blog too.

It started off last week with Russell Buckley and his Who Gave Google Permission to be the Judge and Jury of Mobile Content? article at Mobhappy, followed by additional insights of Dave Harper in An Open Letter to Google: “Page adapted for mobile phone?” Please stop now, you are crippling sites, not adapting pages on his Different Things blog which initiated Jason Coleman from to explain about his app – and its relation to Google Mobile, at the blog and over at

Meanwhile in Austin, Texas, there were the interesting panel discussions at SXSW where colleague Kelly Goto shared her vision and ideas on the future of the Mobile Web in Dogma Free Design panels, which made Carlo Longino think about a couple of things in this post back at Mobhappy:

“Sure, these (technical) issues are important, but just as important is taking a more holistic view of mobile design and considering how to create services and applications that fit the mobile lifestyle and workstyle, as opposed to just making something that looks nice on a phone.”

All in all, essential reading if you’re interested, developing and/or designing for the Mobile Web.

Nothing more I can add to the discussion as what is there now, but I thought it might be interesting to visualize what’s currently happening on the Mobile Web related to the topics discussed. So here’s my input to the story, feel free to comment and add your Mobile Web experiences with the issues discussed and shown here below. Sorry for the quality of the images, these are amateur pictures taken with my digital camera but they’re real :-) The cell phone used here to demo is a Sony-Ericsson v800.

One of the essential things when developing/designing for the Mobile Web is to understand the context of the mobile user: why, where and when would he need to access mobile web pages? Does he just need to find information or does he want to access news, feeds or blogs to read on his cell phone when traveling? Or does he need a more embedded approach including for example click-to-call information when navigating a tourist guide to find a restaurant? Maybe he wants to consult a map too to find the location? Or maybe he wants to forward the information to a friend by SMS or email? There are a lot of different parameters to consider here, let’s just leave MoSoSo out for now and focus on some basics.

As a starter, let’s check out how our gotomobile blog looks on a cell phone screen using some different mobile web browsers. This blog is using W3C standards so it should display correctly on any xml/xhtml/wap 2.0 enabled mobile web browser. You can see how it looks on the v800 here below.

goto_opera goto_obigo goto_wink goto_google
(from left to right: Opera miniObigoWinksiteGoogle Mobile)

Opera mini does a great job by respecting the site structure, the css style, the links but crops the images – which leads to some poorer squeezed image quality. The integrated Sony-Ericsson v800 Obigo browser respects the structure and the links but neglects the css and the images normally displayed. Winksite just uses the text feed and respects the site structure but doesn’t respect the links neither doesn’t display images. Google Mobile does the same but leaves the links intact.

Now here at gotomobile we have been experimenting with developing mobile web content. One of the projects we did is developing a small personalized tourist guide and tried to understand the different contextual aspects of mobile users needing to access content through their mobile web browser.

The home page shows the navigation structure including some images (or advertising), when clicking the food/dinner option I get some restaurants menu to choose from, note that I can navigate the menu using my keypad (!) When clicking a restaurant I get an animated image (can be SVG or animated gif depending on the phone support) to visualize the mood and atmosphere of the restaurant and another click leads me to a description, location and contact details. Click the phone number gives me immediate click-to-call access to the restaurant (voicecall). Now these are some simple steps, carefully chosen but practically and easy usable for the user, I can preview the restaurant atmosphere and eventually the menu, and when I like it, I can directly call the restaurant to reserve a table.

Here is how it looks in the Obigo browser as mobile specific (or adapted) web content.

obigo_home obigo_noti_img obigo_click2call obigo_noti

The same navigation with Opera mini gives slightly different results on the design side: images are not displayed as they should but the overall design style and links are respected, however animated gifs are displayed as static gif images. The keypad navigation gets lost however, since it acts as a normal ‘mini’ web browser it doesn’t seem to understand specific call-to-action phone protocols. The good thing here is that the click-to-call option is respected, asking 1 more step to confirm if you want to leave the browser and do a phone call (!) Here’s how it looks below in 6 steps.

opera_guia_home opera_cssok opera_noagifs.jpg opera_click2call opera_request opera_callnumber

When searching for the ‘mobile adapted’ guide in Google Mobile, I cannot find it; by using the web option, the guide link displays on my screen and redirects me to my ‘Google transcoded’ ‘mobile adapted’ guide. Overall result is that the transcoding doesn’t respect our contextual elements such as keypad navigation, click-to-call, and doesn’t respect design css. Overall links and images are displayed correctly. Check the results below.

google_guia_home google_dining google_home_m.jpg google_nophone

Conclusion: the Mobile Web is not just about surfing some web pages in a mini browser on a cell phone’s screen, inserting advertising or not, there are a lot more other cell phone specific contextual elements that need reflection and need to be respected.
Just checking the most obvious click-to-call and easier keypad navigation options we tested here need to be respected to create a worthwhile mobile user experience; there is a lot of work ahead by everyone involved in this mobile web value chain. It is essential for developers and designers to understand the context of the mobile user and browser environmental elements such as how different search engines behave not forgetting about mobile web browser display parameters influencing your final design.

If this blog can help disseminating valuable information and be a starting point for discussion on the mobile web, we’ll be delighted to hear your comments and discuss them with you.

Posted on March 15th, 2006 in Thoughts
Tagged as No Tags
Written by Rudy De Waele

19 Responses to “about context and the mobile web”


  1. David Harper says:

    Rudy your conclusions are spot on.

    …and thanks for moving the conversation from merely the topic of transcoded “Blog” content to also include the obliteration of mobile phone-specific services.

  2. Jason says:

    Rudy, excellent article.

    I’m especially moved by your acknowledgment that mobile applications are not only about fitting online content into a smaller screen. While content layout was our main concern when we started, it’s obvious that there are other aspects to mobile browsing. Keypad navigation especially is something could benefit from.

    The fact that Google Mobile (and other transcoding applications) ignore some of these mobile-specific feature is disheartening. However, there are still pages out there that users may not be able to get to at all without these services.

    As to how bookmarks in should be displayed, we are looking into ways to give users more options. Users will obviously want to load directly, while they would appreciate Google’s transcoding on a site like We’re always open to suggestions.

    Thanks again for your insight.

  3. David Harper says:

    Jason - Not sure about but some of these guys with mobile specific sites/applications might object:

    Air Canada
    Austrian Airlines
    British Airways
    Continental Airlines
    Delta Airlines
    El Al
    Northwest Airlines
    Philippine Airlines
    Qantas Airways
    Sabre Travel
    Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS)
    Singapore Airlines
    Southwest Airlines
    United Airlines

    As far as your comment Re: “…ignore some of these mobile-specific feature is disheartening” - it’s more then just “disheartening”. I made this comment on MobHappy but it’s worth repeating here:

    “For tens of million worldwide their mobile phone is their one and only pipeline onto the Internet, to the knowledge it contains, and to each other. Their entire “connected” world is what they can publish and consume directly on their phone. By cavalierly denying access to the tools and communities they need is an injustice. By default, the flawed implementation of this transcoding service leaves people out, behind, and without a voice.”

  4. Kelly says:

    Context is everything regarding mobile strategy. Audience, context and (business + user) goals need to be defined prior to design, development and deployment of mobile content. Already the debate over SSR (small screen rendering) through Opera and Opera Mini versus customized mobile URLs (and redirects through short URLs) has begun.

    At the SxSW panel, we discussed being ‘mobile ready’ simply by being standards compliant and using CSS/XHTML along with CSS MP (mobile profile) and MP-UA (mobile profile user agents) are all you need at this time. I beg to differ. Each situation will have its own context and need, and it is true that many web sites would benefit from being ‘mobile friendly’ . I believe customized mobile sites targeting specific audiences, content and devices along with developing best practices for mobile UI and IA is a necessary starting point.

    … which is why this blog exists, to start the conversation and hopefully combine efforts industry-wide to gain some relevant and implementable results.

  5. Dean Maslic says:

    Spot on!
    It’s about putting the web content into the mobile context.
    Ive realised this sometime ago and I am currently tying to implement the best of both worlds: adding mobile context to exisitng web pages.
    So where google and others proxy the content based on a generic/global set of rules, I try to customise the rules for each page to bring out the best, most relevant content for the mobile user.

  6. Kevin Leong says:

    Rudy, brilliant articles.

    In 1977, the Top Gun Wingman project in UC Berkeley also tried to put web content into the mobile context. Wingman did not get any traction. Like Google Mobile, Wingman removed banners and scaled down graphics. No doubt, today we have CSS MP (mobile profile) and MP-UA (mobile profile user agents).

    It’s from my Wingman experience that I am currently focusing on rich mobile client. Why not, rich clients? AJAX is making significant inroads into web apps. We find it quite easy to develop Windows Mobile and J2ME apps calling Web Services.

  7. Barbara Ballard says:

    User context is one of the key reasons why the W3C’s so-called “Best Practices” for mobile web are not best. I wrote a quick overview of sources to derive context at http://www.littlespringsdesign.....e-context/.

  8. eIT says:

    On a side note, the dotMobi mTLD (mobile top level domain) has just been released and is in the sunrise registration period…the promise of dotMobi is to ensure that those sites with dotMobi extension will be tuned to mobile browsing…it is thus expected to make mobile browsing a far more enriching experience.

    One can expect a number of .mobi web sites - those that conform with standards for mobile browsing - to be online starting Oct 2006…while opinion is divided whether dotMobi will revolutionise mobile browsing or would be just another flash in the pan, when one considers that there are four mobile phones for every PC on earth, it certainly appears worth trying out a separate TLD

    More info on dotMobi can be found at - the Dot Mobi Directory, this site also plans to start a dotMobi directory soon

    Ec from IT, Software Database @

  9. mobiedave says:

    I absolutely concur that context is fundamental to the mobile UI. My primary device for surfing the Web is my lap-top. My phone is for immediate, specificall targetted, contextually relevant information that I need NOW. Clever icons and graphical ‘devices’ are no substitute for one click access to what I need. One device cannot be expected to do everything perfectly. However, I do want he device I have with me to serve the purpose I need when I need it… or am I being naive?

  10. Dick Carlson says:

    I’m experimenting with developing some mobile learning examples — and this post was really helpful in my understanding of why so much of what I’m doing doesn’t seem to work! The implementation has really been a great experience for me, and a steep learning curve.

    On the “contextual” side I can’t agree more. As an Instructional Designer, most of the “learning” content I see for the mobile space is either a talking head with huge video files, a long boring text file that goes on and on, or just a bunch of aimless links that don’t really display properly.

    Reminds me of the old joke — “What is two dead pigs and a tractor that won’t start?” “The Iowa State Fair.” (Well, it’s funny if you grew up in Minnesota.

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