Current mobile web implementations will be seen as ill fitting by future generations

At the Mobile Web Europe conference held in London earlier this month by Informa Telecoms & Media, Russell Buckley, UK managing director of leading mobile advertising network AdMob, showed delegates the first TV commercial broadcast in the US: a static image of a map of the US overlaid with the name of the advertiser, a clock manufacturer, accompanied by a single-line voiceover – hardly what nowadays would be regarded as compelling viewing.

At the time, those who designed the commercial were borrowing concepts from radio advertising and hadn’t woken up to the full visual potential of television as an advertising medium.

In the same way, another new medium, mobile, is borrowing from more-established media, such as broadcasting and the web, in delivering content services to users, Buckley said. And in the same way, future generations might look back at these early implementations on mobile and think of them as peculiarly ill-fitting.

Buckley’s comments were echoed by Daniel Appelquist, senior technology strategist at carrier group Vodafone, who said that a future in which people are wandering around viewing stuff on mobile that is copied straight from the web is a “strange dystopian view.”

A case in point is search. Appelquist said that the future model for mobile search is more likely to come from mobile pure-play startups than from web search providers, such as Google. That’s because these startups are approaching search from a mobile perspective, trying to cater to the specific needs of mobile users, and are not coming to mobile with the mindset of a fixed-Internet firm.

Appelquist said that although Apple marketed the iPhone as a window to the full web, it also issued a set of instructions to developers on how to create or adapt web applications optimized for the now iconic handset, some of which are hosted on sites with a mobile URL, such as a Dotmobi one. He added that the applications offering the best experience on the iPhone are those for which a “specific iPhone client” has been made.

Appelquist, who helped write the recently released book “Mobile Internet for Dummies”, was voicing his own opinions and not necessarily those of Vodafone. But it is interesting to note that the carrier he works for is guilty of taking precisely the kind of actions that could lead to the “dystopia” he warns against.

As with other mobile operators aiming to deliver web services on phones, Vodafone went from a closed, do-it-itself approach to teaming up with the big Internet brands – the likes of Google, Yahoo, MySpace and Facebook. It could be argued that this was a logical step, since these brands are the big success stories of the Internet, and collaborating with them could ensure the best web experience on phones.

Google has helped Vodafone offer full-web search on phones, coupled with controversial transcoding technology supplied by technology vendor Novarra that automatically adapts web sites for the mobile screen. And for users who are looking for a Google-like experience on ordinary WAP-browser phones, there’s no doubt that that’s the best possible short-term fix.

But for users wanting to search for content and downloads on the mobile web – both on- and off-portal – Google has proved rather inadequate. That’s because cataloging all the content and sites on the mobile web is a completely different kettle of fish than doing the same on the fixed Internet, and because Google’s focus is on research queries rather than pointing to the shortest possible route to a content download – something that many say is what most users are seeking when conducting a search on their phone.

Certainly, many operators’ web-search functions are failing to pick up on a lot of mobile content out there. Anil Malhotra, senior vice president of marketing and alliances at billing aggregator Bango, told delegates at this week’s conference that if you type a quote from the Bible in a mobile search box you’re likely to get a slew of links to fixed-Internet sites but none to mobile sites, even though there is a WAP site on which the whole Bible is reproduced. Also, even though most UK soccer teams have WAP sites, mobile search results tend to return links only to their fixed-Internet sites.

Some might say that such omissions won’t matter in the long run, because the need for a separate mobile web, parallel to the Internet we are familiar with on PCs, will disappear once all phones come with full-web browsers. But it does matter for the time being, and many would argue that users will continue to want different content on mobiles than they want on PCs. And if mobiles become the main way of accessing the web in the future, as they very well might, it will be compatibility with mobiles – not PCs – that will become the first criterion when designing web sites, and people might look back at how things used to be done on mobile phones and smile – in the same way that the first TV commercial makes us smile now.

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