Where is the tech industry going and how can we stay one step ahead? This is the question that most of us are asking ourselves on a daily basis in one form or another. What's the latest CSS3 technique? What HTML5 elements can I harness? What web application can I build that will be just like Twitter... but better? What is the next technological revolution? What is the next big thing? I can't answer most of those, but I can tell you that the mobile web is not the answer. Let's go back in time for a moment:

1999

For most people, this is where the mobile web starts. Mobile operators begin to hype WAP as the next big thing as the first handsets become available. We're all amazed that something which can fit into the palm of our hand can look up CINEMA SHOWING TIMES. Zomg, bitches, the future is here!

Personally, I enjoy rocking out with my Nokia 7110 (as seen in the Matrix) did you know that flip-down plastic bits and scroll wheels are the next big thing for mobile phones? It also has infra-fucking-red. Hell yeah.

2000

According to the WAP Forum (basically the W3C of WAP) in less than two years, all new digital handheld devices will be WAP-enabled. Business technology advisor Gartner predicts that the mobile phone will become the most widely used Internet access device in the world, with the number of installed mobile phones topping 1 billion after 2003.

The president of Ericsson (yeah, remember them?) says that "Mobile Net will soon outgrow fixed Net". So, the mobile web is almost here.

2001

With people becoming quickly dissatisfied with WAP and its painfully slow performance, GPRS emerges as the next big thing. GPRS is good because it provides a constant data-connection, a bit like DSL vs Dial-Up. MMS, 2G and 3G services begin to emerge, built upon this technology.

The BBC proclaim a 3G mobile revolution with this new technology. The mobile web is almost here.

2002

Carriers continue to battle over 3G licensing to make sure the they have a firm hold on the mobile web, in the mean time Palm (rememeber them?) start ramping up production on a mobile web browser. Because the future of the mobile web lies in PDAs and Palm are leading the charge. The mobile web is almost here, we just need some better PDAs and stuff.

2003

This is a big year, because Opera actually kickstart the mobile revolution! Who knew? What about those revolutions before? lol! They were just silly people with waps and geeprs, the heart of the mobile web lies in the browser and our new browser is available to all Nokia 7650/3650 users. POW. Eat that. "We now have truly started the era of the mobile Internet."

Can I get a what-what? Smartphones for Christmas everybody! You better get ready, cause the mobile web is almost here!

2004

Facebook is here, holy wow! Someone should make a movie about this. Elsewhere on the interwebs, the mobile internet has its best ever month and apparently this trend looks likely to continue.

CNN say "Net-ready handheld devices -- Palm Pilots, cell phones, and the like -- are growing at a faster rate than new PCs. Right now there are 182 million mobile Internet users worldwide, according to IDC. By the end of 2007, that number is expected to reach 576 million."

(hang on, didn't they say a billion by 2003 before? and now it's just half a billion by 2007?)

2005 - 2006

Snoozefest. Mobile data gets faster, handsets improve, blah blah. It's almost here. Be patient.

2007

Holy. Eff. Have you seen this? The iPhone is off-the-heezy! For the first time the internet actually looks good on a phone. Epic wow-factor, everyone is going to want one of these. Everyone in the whole world. Ever.

According to BusinessWeek, the mobile web is now taking off. Ignore all that stuff before, we were just kidding about that. It's the real deal this time, cause the iPhone is just getting up to speed - so basically, the mobile web is almost here. Watch this space.

2008

Well, as predicted: the mobile internet revolution is here. The important thing to note is that it's not quite here yet, it's here in the sense that it's just arrived but it needs to take off its scarf, sit down, have a cup of tea and watch some Hollyoaks. You know, then it'll start actually doing some shit. The mobile web is almost here, just give it a second, ok?

Now let's make some more crazy-ass 3-5 year predictions, those have never failed so far!

2009

BusinessWeek are at it again, the mobile web will overtake desktops as the most popular way of accessing the internet. I know that same claim was made by someone 10 years ago who I can't quite remember - the son of Eric or something, but seriously this time, I'm not messing about.

2010

Right, I know that if I was a boy crying wolf you probably would've kicked me in the nuts by now and killed all my sheep with your own bare hands before selling their bodies on to a tradesman of questionable moral substance - but just listen to me for a moment: the mobile web revolution has NOW arrived. Srsly.

Ireland are a bit late to the party and reckon it's all just starting up now, thanks to the iPad.

But wait - don't get ahead of yourself. Apparently, the next billion people coming online will be on mobile devices. So actually the mobile thing is pretty cool right now, but it's going to get started properly in just a minute.

I Have A Question

I have been watching bloggers, the media, web designers, people on twitter, and pretty much every speaker at every web design conference since the release of the iPhone talk about "the mobile web" and how important it is. When is it going to fucking get here? The same ridiculous predictions have been made for the last 10 years, and while we've come a long way... mobile web usage is most certainly not exceeding the desktop.

Let's Make a Few Distinctions

The people in the web design industry who hype the mobile web the most are the same people talking about "Responsive Web Design" which, for the un-educated, means "making pretty alternative stylesheets for iPhone and iPad". These are also the same people who cite developing countries as the primary reason that the mobile web is set for continued growth, exceeding that of the desktop.

At what point did an iPhone with a contract with a value of over £1,200 become a great device for developing countries?

Wired recently wrote about how the web is dead, but the internet is stronger than ever. I think that same applies to mobile.

Will mobile phone usage be replaced by mobile internet? Almost definitely. Voice calls will go to VOIP, SMS will go to email/instant messaging, MMS will go to email. These technologies are already accessible to more people than ever before, and I'm sure that trend will continue. But, replacing desktops? Being used for things which you would normally use a computer for? I don't think so.

What are the largest blocks of time that anyone spends on a computer? Sitting at a desk, doing some form of work. This isn't what the mobile web was made for, and it never will be - there is no mobile device which is "better" at a work task than a desktop device (the clue is in the name). The mobile web is a convenience, not a necessity.

On the other hand, I send pretty much no text messages any more, I rarely make any personal phone calls which aren't VOIP and I definitely don't send any multimedia messages. All that stuff has been almost completely replaced by mobile internet.

Desktop is to Mobile as Car is to Motorcycle

For the average user, owning a desktop and mobile device is a lot like owning a car and a motorcycle. The car is your main vehicle, it gets you to where you want to go quickly and easily. The car holds everything you want it to, can be used in any weather conditions, and is suitable for use for a journey of any distance. The motorcycle is smaller, more flexible in day-to-day usage, and undoubtedly sexier. On the other hand, it's limited in its capacity, it's generally most useful in specific situations (eg. a sunny day), and it's really not very comfortable to ride for long distances.

The car is the main device, the motorcycle is secondary.

If you visit Cambodia or Vietnam, you'll see motorcycles. Lots of them. In fact you'll see so many that you'll quickly realise how in this part of the world, motorcycles far outnumber cars. They're cheaper to buy, cheaper run, easier to store, and more simple to manufacture - the secondary device for the first world becomes the primary device for the developing world. Does this mean that you need to start offering dedicated motorcycle parking for your shop in London? Erm.... don't think so.

Increased mobile usage in developing countries pushes global mobile web statistics higher and higher each year, but using this data to justify a dedicated mobile website makes about as much sense as offering parking for Vietnamese motorcycles in central London. For the overwhelming majority of you, they aren't your audience and they never will be.

So now you're thinking "Ok, but mobile usage data for my country is way up! Like 110% up! Suck on that!" - The question here is what type of usage is up? Millions of new people screwing around on Facebook and Twitter on their mobile phones is meaningless, there are also millions of new people screwing around on Facebook and Twitter on their computers. Unless you're building a site which is relevant to mobile users then you shouldn't assume that just because overall mobile usage is up, it's important to your site.

In Closing

For the time being, arguments about the importance of the mobile web are mostly pointless. Like arguments over whether or not to support IE6, the only thing that really matters is your own usage data. It means nothing that "global mobile usage went up 148% last year" and it means nothing that "IE6 still retains a 22% global browser market share". Those statistics are vastly skewed by data which is of absolutely no relevance to the question of whether or not YOU should be concerned about them.

This site receives less than 1% of visits from IE6 and mobile devices put together. I couldn't care less whether the mobile revolution has arrived or not. For the time being, it doesn't affect any decisions which I need to make here.

Overall, the mobile internet revolution is far more relevant to companies who do what we've always done with mobile technology: communicate. The revolution is for social networks and telecommunications... the entire web isn't about to turn on it's head and it's about time that we stopped waiting for that to happen.

The mobile web is already here, it's been here for a while now. It just isn't exactly what we expected.


Footnote: A bit of a tangent, but if you have 3 seconds spare then I would love it if you'd check out my entry for Nikon's worldwide photography competition and consider voting for me by clicking the "Like" button.


Main post image by johanl