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There was a time where it made sense to have a separate mobile site, running in parallel with your old faithful desktop website. We put these mobile-only sites under domains like “m.myveryspecialsite.com” or “myveryspecialsite.mobi”.
The argument was that because our online offering was being accessed via a different medium with different capabilities, we therefore needed clearly distinct sites. Mobile phones then were simple beasts, because they were mainly just phones with a bit of web browsing thrown in. These phones were not capable of showing complex, visually busy sites, so it made sense for website owners to just “start again” and create a simple, standalone companion mobile site.
Well, it’s not so obvious any more. The landscape is changing. The argument that you need a separate mobile site isn’t quite so compelling. In fact, in many cases, it doesn’t make sense to split your site in two any longer, and here are three reasons why:
1. Enter the smartphone: Mobile devices are more powerful and can render richer content these days. What this means is that you can create a richer mobile site that is much closer (although different) to your desktop site. In most cases, you can display many of the elements of your main site on a smartphone mobile screen. When this happens, the argument that you need to create a completely new mobile-focused site wears thin, because it’s now probably easier for you to create the same rich website as your desktop one, but just reworked for a narrower screen.
You may argue that vast majority of people on this earth still use simple phones, and yes you would be right. But this is the point you are missing: I don’t care about the now, a brief transient period in the world’s history, I care about the way it will be. It’s what you call a long-term business strategy.
2. Enter the social web: People are sharing content like never before. Sites are reporting that their biggest referrers are Facebook and Twitter, with Google now relegated to third. People share regardless of platform. Someone will share an article on their desktop computer, and it will be picked up by someone via their phone or tablet device. As a result it doesn’t make any sense to split your site, and share separate addresses, one for your mobile site and one for your desktop site. It makes sense to keep one, unified address. The more universal your site is, the less confusion and the more power it holds.
3. Multiple devices: There’s no such thing as a big screen and a small screen any more. There are now screens of multiple and variable sizes. You want your web application to look good on a 43″ TV screen, on a desktop computer, on a tablet, on a phone and even the oddly-sized Samsung Galaxy Note (Is it a tablet? Is it a phone?). It makes no sense to build separate sites for these multiple screen sizes, which will keep varying in size as more gadgets are produced. The economical answer is to build once and build to fit on any screen.
So where does that leave your “.mobi” or “m.” strategy. Well these are merely going to be domains that are marketing devices, pointing to your desktop site — and if a user happens to view it on a mobile site, your server will pick up the device type, and the site will dynamically adjust. In fact there may be no point in having these separate mobile domains at all in the future. They may just become defunct.
You may argue that powerful smartphones and tablets are able to view your full website, so why would you need to create customised sites. This is a cop-out. You do need to make adjustments on your site that play to the strengths of a particular screen size, Mobile OS, or device. But this is the wrapping, not the core.
Mobilise on the front-end or the back-end?
You could mobilise your site’s front-end or you can take the back-end approach. An article on Memeburn a while back on responsive web design explored how a website can adjust dynamically, on the fly to the screen size it finds itself on. This is brave, because your site will probably demand a large download and you may find yourself making compromises on your design by trying to accommodating multiple screen designs in one site. It may be too hardcore for now, but this is the future.
The other way to display your mobile/tablet/semi-tablet version is via a back-end fix. Your main desktop site, which is actually now all your multi-device and multi-screen sites rolled into one, would detect a device and then decide which theme or style sheet to render to suit the screen. The difference here is that it is all one site, using the same database, displaying the same articles and most importantly using the same web address.
A mobile-only online business doesn’t make sense to me any more, as does a business that just plays to the desktop web. Sites and services should be one thing, reformatted, on every device. Granted it may not be the now, but it’s certainly the future.
In case you are wondering Memeburn is currently employing the old method of showing a mobile site. We eat our own dogfood here, and with an impending site relaunch we’ll be adopting this strategy.