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March 09, 2017

Are "mobile" sites really needed?

A few days ago I used one of the readily available website analysis tools to check RuggedPCReview.com. The resulting report gave me a stern "site not mobile-optimized" lecture.

"Mobile-optimized," of course, refers to the fact that sites on the one-size-fits-all world wide web are being viewed on a very wide range of devices with a very wide range of screen sizes. And it is certainly true that viewing a webpage on a 27-inch display is a very different experience from viewing it on a 4.7-inch smartphone.

That predicament was recognized early on, years and years ago, and for a while there were efforts to have alternate web experiences for small devices. Examples back in the 1990s were the NTT DoCoMo system in Japan, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) as sort of a barebones browser, and numerous proprietary browser-type apps, none of which ever had a serious impact.

Most recently, "mobile-optimized" has come to mean web pages that automatically rearrange themselves when the default width of the page is wider (i.e., has more pixels) than the display it is viewed on. That's generally done with sort of a block system where blocks can sit side by side if there is enough room, or they stack themselves when there isn't. Or the blocks shrink in width, making everything taller and narrower. Which is just about the very opposite of good page layout. It's very difficult to both make a site look good and easy to read when it's done by shrinking and stacking and re-stacking blocks.

The bigger question is why it's even be necessary. Back in the day it might have made more sense. That's because most desktop and notebook screens were first 800 x 600 pixel, then 1024 x 768, and then gradually more, with 1366 x 768 and 1450 x 900 common. As a result, most websites were designed to fit into these standard formats. That was a problem for early mobile devices whose screens used the 240 x 320 pixel QVGA and at most the 480 x 640 VGA format for many years. To make matters worse, while most of those early mobile devices did have some sort of zoom features, the devices just weren't powerful enough to make that work.

Now look at the situation today. While, amazingly, desktops and notebooks continued for many years with the same old resolutions, handhelds made tremendous progress. Laptops, especially, continued on with coarse, grainy displays and didn't change until Apple came up with the "retina" display concept, i.e. pixels so small that the naked eye could no longer see them individually when looked at from a normal viewing distance. Desktop monitors, too, resisted change for many years. Even today, "Full HD" 1920 x 1080 is considered state-of-the-art on the desktop, though anyone who has ever worked on even a 24-inch screen with just "full HD" can attest that it's no fun. Even today, 4k displays remain very rare on the desktop, and even 2k displays are the exception.

Compare that sluggish progress to what's been happening on smartphones. Numerous smartphones now have 1920 x 1080 resolution, the same as most giant HDTVs. A good number offer 2k (2560 x 1440) screens, and there are even a few with 4k ultra KD (3840 x 2160) resolution. That's incredibly sharp on a small smartphone display!

What that means is that the average webpage very easily fits on most modern smartphones, and often with room to spare. Granted, while super-sharp, text and graphics and layout look tiny on even a big smartphone screen. That's what that wonderful pinching and zooming on capacitive touch screens is for! Combined with the superior performance of modern smartphones and small tablets, effortless zooming and panning around a webpage is a piece of cake. And, in my opinion, far, far preferable than having to deal with a dumbed-down "mobile-optimized" website that keeps tumbling and pinching its ugly blocks around. So there.

Is it easy to make even the most common and widespread technologies one-size-fits-all? It isn't, as Microsoft has learned the very hard way. But with the reality that most handheld devices have just as many (or more) pixels to work with as laptops and desktops, I see no reason to engage in needless "mobile-optimized" projects.

In fact, one of the nasty consequences of that rush to make those ugly stackable oddities is that we now have lots of corporate sites built for the (wrongly presumed) lowest common denominator. My bank, for example, now has a website that looks like it was designed for an early iPhone. It's one size-fits-all, and it looks forlorn, inefficient and ugly on a laptop or desktop, and super-inefficient to boot.

Progress isn't always progress.

Posted by conradb212 at March 9, 2017 06:36 PM

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