Access to the web is a human right, says Bruce Lawson. It should not matter if you browse using a mobile phone, or with an assistive technology because of a disability. You should still have access to the same website a desktop user enjoys.
Usability guru Jakob Nielsen wrote on his useit.com site recently: "Mobile-phone users struggle mightily to use websites, even on high-end devices. To solve the problems, websites should provide special mobile versions."
He's wrong. Making two or even three mediocre sites, designing and user-testing them, then trying to keep them in sync is a waste of time and money. Concentrate on preserving the 'One Web': that is, make one really good site that works across all devices.
However, Nielsen is right when he says: "Using a mobile makes you a disabled user", because most devices are slow and awkward to use, much like disabled people's assistive technologies. But the solution is not to splinter the web into device-specific sites such as 'mobile.example.com'. The solution is to use techniques conducive to universal design.
Special accessibility sites
Nobody makes separate 'disabled' sites any more. Originally, enlightened business owners who wanted to serve people with disabilities made special 'accessibility' sites that were separate from the main website. Assistive technologies couldn't cope with the full website, the developers argued: there were too many pictures, or the site couldn't be made accessible for some other technical reason. Disabled people didn't want the adverts, they said, and so were given a stripped-down, task-focused site.
The developers were wrong. Many disabled people did want the ads and the special offers. Many complained about the "separate but equal" treatment they were given by developers, who thought they knew best when it came to what disabled people want.
Gradually, people learnt how to make sites accessible, visually pleasing and useful to all. Many techniques that are used to overcome disability barriers go a long way towards making sites that work well on mobile devices, and are documented by web-standards body the W3C in their online article Shared Web Experiences: Barriers Common to Mobile Device Users and People with Disabilities.
Mobile users also want the full experience rather than separate-but-equal treatment. There are ways to cater for smaller screens in code via handheld stylesheets or, even better, a CSS technique called media queries, which allows a developer to send a different layout optimised for the capabilities of different devices. You make one website, and the stylesheet sends different layouts to devices with smaller screens. I don't know if Nielsen knows of these methods, which are available for Opera, Safari and soon in Firefox.
As well as the developer sending different styles, mobile browsers are getting cleverer too. Users can customise the settings so their mobile never downloads images that consume lots of bandwidth. Some browsers will rearrange...