Browsing On Your Phone: Mobile vs. Desktop
I’ve been putting the Samsung Galaxy S III through its paces recently, which means I’ve been treated to the glorious expanse of its 4.8″ Super AMOLED panel every time I’ve checked my email, sent a text message, or watched a YouTube video over the past few weeks. Just a year ago, a display of that size on a smartphone would have been considered gigantic beyond belief. In fact, the Samsung Infuse 4G boggled my mind with its 4.5-inch display when I stopped by an AT&T store around this time last year (I was there to pick up an HP Veer, so the size shock was especially apparent). Sure, there are bigger displays on the phone market right now, like the 5.3-inch panel on the Galaxy Note. But that’s a hybrid phone/tablet device; in the “pure smartphone” category, the Galaxy S III’s screen is currently the biggest around.
The question arises, then: what place do mobile-optimized sites have in today’s jumbophone-dominated world?
You know the sites I’m talking about. Both the simple, text-centric WAP sites of yesteryear and the more-polished web apps of today qualify as “mobile sites.” They’re often stripped-down versions of the full website you’re trying to visit, sometimes bare-bones to the point of not including any graphics at all. We’ve got a pretty good one here at Pocketnow, I think:
… but there are a lot out there still haunted by the ghosts of internet past:
It’s not quite as easy to find mobile sites as it used to be, with most companies now offering an app-based mobile experience, but there are still plenty to go around. When we asked on our Facebook page what version of a site you prefer, fully half of those who voted selected “desktop site.” Check out our infallible, hugely scientific survey.
Okay, yes: it’s anecdotal evidence at best. But it shines a light on a trend that’s been slowly developing in the mobile space: desktop-class browsing on smartphones has become increasingly popular over the years. There’s a very clear set of reasons for that, the first of which of course being that it wasn’t always possible to browse full websites on a mobile device.
Oh sure, I could load full HTML pages on my Blackberry 7520 back in 2004, or on my Motorola Q in 2007; in fact, when Apple made the claim that the first iPhone was the first device to allow “real web browsing,” I facepalmed so hard I left a welt on my forehead. But -and this took me a while to admit- it really was the iPhone that brought properly rendered websites into customers’ hands on a large scale. Instead of broken columns and odd layouts, to the average Joe it looked like “the real internet.” And when webOS, Android, WP7 and others followed suit with their own WebKit-based browsers, equaling and then surpassing the capabilities of mobile Safari, the case for desktop-site browsing on a mobile device became even harder to argue against.
That’s pretty much where the argument for eliminating mobile sites has its foundation. We’re accessing the internet from smartphones which in some cases out-spec our home computers. The Galaxy S III I have sitting here features a 720p display and a quad-core processor, neither of which are offered by the Macbook Air I’m writing this piece on. That’s a gross simplification, sure; mobile and notebook processors aren’t created equal, and the Air’s display has a good 8 inches on the SGS3’s. But it still begs the question why anyone would settle for a mobile site when modern smartphones are perfectly capable of displaying their full-desktop kin.
I’ve been turning this question over in my head for a few weeks. And as much as I value full-scale capability everywhere I go, I have to say: there are still compelling reasons for keeping mobile sites around. I’ve organized them into two categories, for your reading enjoyment.
Ease Of Use
Jakob Nielsen has some great opinions on the subject of mobile-vs-desktop web design at his site, UseIt.com (link below). His principal point is that a combination of mobile and desktop sites are needed to provide a full user experience. His stance is best summed up in this quote:
Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what’s needed to satisfy desktop users. Two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work.
I think he’s right. While I enjoy the ability to access a full desktop site from my smartphone, I’m usually doing that in a very specific set of circumstances: I have both hands free, I’ve got the phone in landscape mode, and my attention is entirely devoted to what’s on the display.
The problem, of course, is that that’s not typically how I use my smartphone. It’s called a “mobile device” for a reason. More often than not, my attention is divided, or I’m otherwise encumbered. Take the other day for example: I was grabbing a quick bite between appointments, standing outside a
McDonald’s organic farm-fresh deli. I was reading on my phone (Evan Blass’ excellent piece about .ZIP files on Android devices, in case you’re wondering), and only had one hand free because the other was covered in salty french-fry grease heart-healthy hummus. I happened to be on Pocketnow’s desktop site, and for whatever reason, I couldn’t double-tap to zoom in on the text column. The result was that I had to pan-and-scan my way around the article, probably the most frustrating way to read anything on the internet. And without the ability to pinch-to-zoom, clicking links to go to other stories was a real hassle- even on the 4.8″ display.
Mobile sites streamline this stuff for us. Even on a full desktop site without column-centering issues or ad banners with impossible-to-click X-buttons, the links are still undersized. Even (or especially) on 720p displays, the text is still tiny. And even on processing powerhouses, the heavy Flash-based galleries or shadowboxes are laggy and cumbersome.
The mobile version of most sites may not be as pretty, but it’s a whole lot easier to use. Especially one-handed.
Just The Basics
Six months of absurd data speeds on my Verizon Galaxy Nexus have spoiled me somewhat. Carrying the Sprint version of the Galaxy S III for the past few days, with its EvDO radio my only option in LTE-less Boston, has reminded me of something: not everyone gets to bask in 4G goodness day in and day out. Furthermore, most of us no longer live in a world of all-you-can-eat data; we’re increasingly confined to a small smattering of GBs to get us through the month as carriers’ terrifying overage swords loom over our heads.
That matters because loading a desktop site versus a mobile one often means you’re incurring a significant data penalty. Combine that with the added page load times over slower networks, and you’ve got a really compelling case for a site that just gives you the basics: a solid-color background, spiced up with the occasional low-resolution image, featuring big, simple, easy-to-tap links.
Also -and this is heresy to mention on an ad-supported publication- mobile sites often spare users the headache of dealing with advertisements. If ads are present, they’re usually confined to small banners or text-centric boxes shifted off to the side or hidden away in the footer. The aggravating pop-ups and resource-intensive animations are usually nowhere to be seen, reducing the number of obstacles between the user and the content. It’s just a better user experience.
Embrace The Gray Area
The best part about mobile sites, though? Using them isn’t an either-or proposition. Recall one of the principal points Nielson mentioned above: the link to the full-desktop version of the site should be available in case a user needs it. Mobile websites don’t need to battle it out with their desktop siblings; the two can -and should- work together, along with native apps, to provide a great user experience no matter what use case presents itself.
For my part, I’m going to continue to maintain my collection of desktop- and mobile-oriented bookmarks so as long as I keep using my phone in both one- and two-handed scenarios. For all their limitations, mobile-optimized sites still serve a purpose in my mobile-heavy life, and I hope they stick around for a long time to come.
Agree? Disagree? You know where to drop them comments. And thanks to our new format, you can even do it from our mobile site. Ain’t life grand?
Mobile vs Desktop UX concepts source: UseIt