One size still doesn't fit all for Web

Creating one Web site to fit both browser and mobile is still a challenge but industry is picking up fast, says Web designer.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

Creating one Web site that is optimized for various Web browsers on different mobile phones remains a challenge due to compatibility issues, but the industry is quickly finding ways to address this, according to a Web designer.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Suresh Gunasagaran, director of Singapore-based web design company Interactive@OOm, said many mobile devices do not have a standard protocol to enable content to be viewed the same way across different platforms.

"The way content is read and displayed would be slightly different if I were using a Samsung phone, compared to an Apple iPhone," he explained.

However, Gunasagaran believes "it is only a matter of time before full-fledged Web sites are completely optimized for most types of phones".

He noted that the mobile industry is picking up fast and the Web industry is also fast aligning its protocols to suit the changing trends in readability and protocols on the phone.

Even the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) does not have a definitive answer when asked if companies should develop only one Web site to run across all platforms, or a separate version specifically for mobile browsing.

"I'm afraid the answer is, 'It depends'," Dominique Hazaël-Massieux, who is activity lead for W3C Mobile Web Initiative, said in an e-mail interview. The consortium's mobile Web unit aims to solve interoperability and usability issues in mobile Web access by collaborating with key players in mobile production.

"On one end, there are Web sites where mobile visitors are not expected to be hugely important so therefore, having a single Web site is probably the most cost effective," said Hazaël-Massieux.

"On the other end, there are rich Web sites [that can offer] highly added value for mobile visitors," he said. "For these, it may even be worth looking into systems that will adapt the site content to each and every [type of] mobile phone."

There are already tools available to help create Web sites compatible with both desktop-based browser and mobile surfing, he noted, referring to two main categories of technologies that enable companies to carry out tweaks either on the server or client devices.

For server-based adaptation, the server will deliver different content to the mobile device based on the identification of that device. Hazaël-Massieux noted that there are several technical solutions for this, ranging from open source HTTP content negotiation on the Apache Web server to proprietary complete content-adaptation systems.

For client-side adaptation, the mobile browser adapts some of the content and the adaptation is done mostly based on CSS stylesheet and JavaScript, he added.

Inching toward consistent browsing

Andreas Bovens, group leader developer relations at Opera Software, is optimistic about the future of mobile Web sites. Asked if there is now an environment where "one Web site fits all", he replied: "We're almost there."

Bovens noted that on the browser front, there are several technologies to provide mobile users full Web site surfing experience. One such technology is the Opera-pioneered Small Screen Rendering (SSR), which reformats an entire page to fit the screen of a mobile.

While this method of reformatting Web content was popular in the past decade, he noted that it is more common now to scale a page so it fits the width of the device and preserves the original layout. Users can then zoom and pan to the piece of content they are interested in, he said.

Apple, for example, pioneered the viewport meta tag that allows developers to control the width and zoom level of a page to fit the mobile screen.

Another technology is media queries, which is a CSS hook that allows even more detailed control to specify the CSS style to apply for devices on different widths.

According to Bovens, media queries can be combined with viewport meta tag to enable the possibility of creating different layouts for Web and mobile browsers.

Despite the technologies available, he noted, most developers who want to provide a mobile-optimized surfing experience prefer to create two versions of the Web site--one for desktop browsers, and another for mobile.

One reason is that the tools are fairly new and people are still experimenting with the various technologies, he said. Most existing sites were also developed for desktop browsers and adapting these for mobile had proven more difficult than expected.

To avoid having to build more than one version of a Web site, companies should consider mobile platforms from the start of the site development, said Bovens.

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