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Scitable is bringing rich resources to the mobile web

I had a chance to catch up today with Vikram Savkar, Senior Vice President and Publishing Director with the Nature Publishing Group (NPG). We've spoken before about Scitable, their online effort to bring high-quality scientific content to educators and students via the social web.

I had a chance to catch up today with Vikram Savkar, Senior Vice President and Publishing Director with the Nature Publishing Group (NPG). We've spoken before about Scitable, their online effort to bring high-quality scientific content to educators and students via the social web. Now that the site is well-established and beginning to expand beyond its initial offerings in genetics, NPG is looking to put the rich resources contained in Scitable into the hands of young people in developing countries, where cell phones have far greater penetration than computer-based Internet access.

Scitable is currently working on developing a mobile version of the site, optimized for viewing in a browser on a low-end mobile phone. They hope to have the site functional by mid-summer, targeting a fall release. While smartphones are exploding in developed nations, many parts of Africa and South America rely on inexpensive phones for both communication and web access (and, in fact, have 4-5 times the penetration of computer-based Internet access). Thus, a site that remains rich and useful even on a small screen or without the latest 4G connectivity would prove to be a "great leveller" in terms of access to a powerful core of scientific information.

Vikram expects "sexier" apps will follow for more advanced mobile devices, but the goal for now is to create a framework by which the majority of content that reaches the main site will be simultaneously available on the mobile site. Obviously, the more complex animations and high-resolution images won't translate well to many mobile devices common to sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, the social components of the browser-based site will need to be set aside. However, the ability to examine a topic with a fair amount of depth and search for relevant content (both hallmarks of the current Scitable web interface) will be key to the mobile experience as well.

For example, while Scitable contains some very deep reading on particular topics, often written at the undergraduate level, most people don't want to read several pages of scientific text on their mobile phones (especially a Nokia 2760). Yet the glossaries, dictionaries, and papers covering core concepts will work quite well on the mobiles. Scitable has also already had luck moving many of the swf animation files from the website to small mobiles, albeit at lower resolution.

Vikram also noted that, while the social components that enable rich interactions between students/instructors/classes on the website won't be in "Version 1" of the mobile site, adding social components and leveraging the communication potential of the phone is certainly a longer-term goal.

Interestingly, Vikram told me that a significant portion of US visits to the full Scitable website were actually through mobile phones already. Increasingly, devices like the iPhone and Moby Tablet will be the primary means by which students access the web. Scitable looks to be ahead of the curve, both as they begin delivering content in developing countries and as developed countries consume more of their content on highly portable devices.