Why speed up the Web? It's all about mobile (and 3 other continents)

Are we really living in a broadband world? Can we benefit from more robust, faster-loading image formats?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

My Google co-blogger, Garett Rogers, asked Monday

"Why are we worried about fractionally speeding up the web when we live in a broadband world that’s just getting faster and faster anyway?"

As Garett pointed out, more speed is never a bad thing, but there are two really good answers to his original question. The first is mobile. Google plans (and seems to be succeeding) to position itself as a dominant force in mobile, whether from an OS, advertising, web, or communications perspective. Many of us may live in a broadband world, but far fewer of us live in a world of 3-4 bars of 3G or 4G mobile data service.

I live in the sticks of Massachusetts and get by with 3mbps DSL. I'm giving serious thought to adding another line and aggregating the bandwidth, but at least I have broadband. It's not terribly broad, but it's not dial-up, so I'll be OK. However, I have 1 bar of standard phone service. If I'm on my roof, I occasionally get a glimmer of 3G. Then it goes away.

And I'm hardly alone in this. Even for people with solid 3G coverage, very few people in North America have 4G or LTE service from their providers, making faster loading (and, perhaps more importantly, uploading) images a mighty desirable thing. After all, what fun is that 8MP camera on your new phone if it takes 5 minutes to upload a high-resolution picture to Facebook?

This isn't just about us, either. This is about the networks themselves. As everyone and their brother buys a smartphone, data traffic on mobile networks is growing fast. Imagine how much AT&T's mobile 3G might improve if every iPhone user managed to reduce their data traffic by 30%? Obviously, images aren't the only source of data traffic on iPhones. Not by a long shot. However, even fractional decreases in traffic will ease congestion on already overcooked networks.

Here's the second big reason why Google's proposed WebP file format is a big deal. Let's say you live in North America, Europe, or Australia and you don't live in the woods like I do. Chances are, you have access to some pretty snappy broadband. It may cost you an arm and a leg, but it's becoming increasingly ubiquitous in urban, suburban, and even exurban areas. However, if you live in Africa, South America, or large swathes of developing Asia (we can just leave Antarctica out of the loop here; the penguins don't need to stream HD movies), then you absolutely don't live in a "broadband world."

You might be accessing basic Internet on a phone, using dialup, or possibly using a satellite connection, perhaps on a shared computer. Streaming video isn't something that gets taken for granted here and images that load 30% faster let people spend more time learning, working, and interacting and less time waiting.

The real question should be, will WebP ever be widely adopted? Google is planning to patch their Chrome Webkit browser to support WebP, but it isn't clear if Apple (whose Safari browser is also Webkit-based) will get on board or what this will mean for Firefox and Internet Explorer. What is clear, however, is that if the networks can't grow and evolve fast enough to meet demand, then we need to explore ways to reduce demand. Improved compression algorithms are certainly once way to go about it.

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