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The mobile web: Speaking to every device, with a personal touch

Think about the last five times you viewed a webpage. What device did you use? I'd be willing to bet that most of you didn't use a desktop. The proliferation of smartphones and tablets, combined with 3G/4G data connectivity, means that we are even more attached than ever to the Internet – without the need for a traditional desktop or laptop PC.

In fact, according to Google, more than 20 per cent of all searches are now being performed from some sort of mobile device and way back in 2012 this was true for over half of all "local" searches.

Read more: How mobility is transforming the enterprise

Now, think about the content on the last five websites you viewed on your mobile device. Were they easy to read? Did they scale to fit the size of the screen – be that smaller or larger than usual – for the device you were using? Given the buzz surrounding responsive web design (RWD) over the last couple of years, you could be forgiven for believing that it was the only means to achieve this.

By definition, RWD is the process of creating websites that provide an optimal viewing experience across a wide range of devices - from mobile phones to desktop computers - by reflowing the same web content according to the device's screen size.

Many have hailed RWD as the solution to the challenges of an increasingly mobile world, helping businesses adjust to the shifts in online behaviour quickly and efficiently. Many also assume that, by using RWD, their site is now mobile-friendly and that they've "done the job", despite the well-documented performance issues which come with serving desktop-sized content to mobile devices. This means that developers are often overlooking the most direct solution, which is building a "proper" mobile site. Granted, building a responsive site is far better than doing nothing at all, but it pales in comparison to the alternative that harnesses the full power of mobile.

Even one of the designers that first popularised RWD back in 2011 doesn't advocate this approach for creating a mobile site and quite sensibly suggests that the best approach depends on the project, writing in his book, "Most importantly, responsive web design isn't intended to serve as a replacement for mobile web sites. Responsive design is, I believe, one part design philosophy, one part front-end development strategy. And as a development strategy, it's meant to be evaluated to see if it meets the needs of the project you're working on."

This basically means that RWD is a passable way to achieve resolution independence, and may be sufficient where a site has limited use cases, but falls short of a solution for building a made-for-mobile website.

Back to the mobile web's future

Ultimately, unless a website knows what device it is addressing, it cannot ensure that it's not sending content designed for a desktop to a smartwatch, for example. One alternative to RWD's generalist approach is "server-side adaptation", a technique that has actually been in use for well over a decade ago now. This method relies on a device detection database installed on the web server to detect the device accessing the website and return a full list of its capabilities. This allows web developers to achieve faster load times by serving pages that are specifically designed for device type rather than screen size alone.

The device detection involved has meant that this technique is sometimes referred to as "browser sniffing", but despite the claims of its detractors, it is extremely reliable and accurate, with good solutions capable of reporting in excess of 99.8 per cent devices in the wild accurately (without resorting to default devices for unknowns). The effectiveness of this technique speaks for itself when you take into consideration that it is still by far the most common content adaptation technique and is used by almost every major Internet brand that takes its mobile presence seriously, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, eBay and Yahoo.

In fact, according to our own research, 82 per cent of the Alexa 100 top sites use some form of server-side device detection to serve content on their main website entry point. Therefore, pragmatism alone suggests that if this method is good enough for some of the Internet's biggest brands, it is at least worth a closer look.

Read more: How mobility is disrupting traditional business models

Therefore, while the blogosphere is full of lively debate about new methods of achieving mobile perfection, the data shows that the Internet's giants are still using server-side device detection techniques to achieve this goal. The techniques are not mutually exclusive of course, but for businesses to truly maximise the opportunity that a more mobile Internet offers, they must be ready to speak to each device, personally.

Ronan Cremin is the CTO of dotMobi

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