Accessing the Internet from cell phones is possible but the experience is poor. Mobile web browser performance is clunky, few web sites are designed for cell phone access, and the customer bill can be astronomical.
I recently spoke with Alexa Raad, who heads up marketing and business development at dotMobi, a startup whose mission is to make the mobile Internet an everyday reality instead of an expensive curiosity. A key part of its strategy is establishing the domain name extension .mobi to designate web sites that support mobile browsers.
But why should businesses buy a .mobi extension when their web servers already detect the type of browser and can be set up to automatically serve up a mobile version of a web page?
"The extension tells users that the web site supports mobile browsers and conforms to standards that guarantee a fast download and probably has low access costs," says Ms Raad. "Some web pages can cost users as much as $10 to download because they aren't designed for mobile devices or the developers aren't aware of the costs."
The operators of .mobi web sites agree to abide by three mandatory rules: no use of frames on the web sites because these are difficult to render by mobile web browsers; no use of the www prefix in the name of the web site; use of XML in creating web sites. If these rules aren't met, dotMobi has the right to revoke the use of the .mobi extension.
These are very easy conditions to meet, and most regular web sites would already be compliant anyway, because these are best practices for any kind of site. This doesn't mean they would be mobile-friendly.
To produce web sites that load fast on mobile devices, and won't cost users a fortune in data costs, takes much more effort. That's why dotMobi has created free development packages and support forums for developers to cut the cost of creating .mobi sites. Tools include ways to calculate the cost of downloading a web page depending upon the data package of the wireless carrier.
The company is funded by Nokia, Microsoft, Vodafone and other strategic investors. The money is used to create the development tools, plus there is revenue from registering .mobi and common extensions.
"We want to make sure that the user experience with .mobi sites is good. We don't want a few bad apples spoiling the neighborhood, that's why we will cancel registrations if web site owners don't abide by mandatory rules," says Ms Raad.
But the biggest obstacle to the realization of dotMobi's mission are the wireless carriers. They have stuck customers with hundreds of dollars in charges because of complex Internet data packages. Combined with the poor performance of mobile browsers, many early users of the mobile Internet have already been turned off from the experience.
Ms Raad is very much aware of this issue, but hopes that the wireless carriers will come up with inexpensive Internet access packages. "Europe is much further ahead in this area than we are in the US, so I'm hoping that things will change," she says. She adds that wireless carriers are among investors in dotMobi.
Foremski's Take: The wireless carriers aren't going to give up their lucrative gateway position. They make a fortune standing between the mobile Internet and the consumer.
Even if tens of thousands of high quality .mobi web sites spring up, that won't mean much because the wireless carriers can easily substitute their online services, or those of partners.
They won't need to block .mobi sites but they can make them a click or three further away. And on the cramped user interface of mobile devices, that's like sending .mobi sites to Siberia.
There are also other obstacles created by the wireless carriers. A senior executive from a startup mobile search firm told me that video services from major wireless carriers hog much of available wireless data bandwidth, cutting off even the partners of wireless carriers.
The promises of the mobile Internet, at least in the US, won't arrive until there are ways of getting around the wireless carriers. Technologies such as WiMAX, which offers high speed wireless data across large distances, could get around the gateway stranglehold.
Intel (an SVW sponsor) is working on making WiMAX capabilities standard in notebook computers, and others are working on the WiMAX infrastructure. But it will be several years before WiMAX based services are widely available.
In short, the mobile Internet will be a long time coming, blocked by the greed of wireless carriers. These companies are rapidly becoming the largest obstacle to technological progress and the development of Internet economies, IMHO.
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Please also see:Intel Breakthrough Demonstrates Its First Mobile WiMAX Baseband Chip
An excerpt from the dotMobi Blog: dotMobi
...some of the more recent smart phones (e.g. the Nokia N90 and N70 series) are being shipped with the Web Kit browser that can render normal desktop sites such as Amazon without any problems. However, there are 4 major problems with this approach:
- These advanced phones represent a tiny percentage of the phones in use around the world. We should concern ourselves more with the ~2.5 billion other “normal” phones. Yes, these advanced abilities will likely trickle down to other phones, but this will take a long time.
- Phones will always be less capable than PCs due to the physical size limitations. You simply can’t fit a big screen and keyboard in a small phone. There will always be a capabilities gap, regardless of how good the phones get.
- Just because you can visit a PC site on a phone, it doesn’t mean you necessarily want to. Mobile is different. Mobile browsing is much less about random surfing than it is about targeted, time & location-specific tasks. Experience has shown that you can’t simply miniaturize a site for mobile—to be truly mobile-friendly and useful, a site needs to be designed for mobile, not just squeezed into a smaller space. Some people argue that mobile should be considered another channel entirely, and that it is a mistake to think about it in the same way.
- Viewing a PC site on a phone can be very expensive because of all the graphics that need to be downloaded. The cost issue alone is enough to make this unfeasible for many users. Example: the cnn.com homepage would cost as much as €7 to view on a phone based on some data plans in Europe.