The future doesn't always arrive on schedule. Back in 2000, when Britain's mobile operators spent £22 billion on licences to run high-speed third-generation networks, there was general expectation that consumers would be enjoying rich internet content on their handsets within a year or two.
But, of course, things are never that simple. The operators had to build their networks, wrestle with their business models - just how do you get a return on £22bn? - and ultimately convince consumers that, when the new generation of web-based mobile services arrived, they would be worth a look. Meanwhile, the rest of us got on with the mundane business of making voice calls and sending texts.
Finally, however, the mobile internet is on the verge of becoming a mass-market reality. Last year, Vodafone offered its customers net access and today most of the major players are 'making the most of now' by offering flat-rate surfing packages. Ofcom statistics suggest that 44 per cent of mobile users are at least aware of the mobile internet, and early figures from Vodafone show that 27 per cent of its customers are taking advantage of the new services.
It's a trend that hasn't been lost on advertisers and, although spend is still relatively small, it is expected to rise sharply. "Last year, the mobile advertising market was worth about £5 million in the UK," says Robert Thurner, commercial director of mobile marketing agency Incentivated and chair of the Mobile Marketing Association's education committee. "But this year we expect it to rise to £20 million." It's a view backed up by a survey of 50 global brands carried out by Airwide Solutions, which found that 71 per cent were planning to increase their mobile advertising budgets in 2008.
But it is very early days and, if uptake of such services is to expand at the expected rate, some key issues must be addressed. Chief among these is usability. As Thurner asserts: "We have to ensure users can find the sites they want, navigate them easily and get the information they want quickly and effectively."
That doesn't sound like too much to ask but, as things stand, anyone dipping a toe into the waters of the mobile internet can expect a mixed experience. The arrival of internet search engines means it is now easy for users to venture beyond mobile operator home portals and out into the wider web. In some cases, the sites located via Google, Yahoo! and the rest will be purpose built for viewing on handsets, but many others will be conventional websites, re-rendered to fit the screens of mobile devices. All well and good, but this repurposing often results in web pages in which the core content is pushed off the mobile screen by outsize graphics and navigation bars.
And it's a real problem. Mark Westwater is a consultant at web and mobile usability company User Vision. A great deal of his time is spent assessing the reaction of mobile users to what they see and experience online; re-rendered sites have emerged as a major bone of contention. "It really is the biggest cause of anger among consumers," he says.
However, even when sites are purpose built for mobile users, developers have no shortage of other issues to address. Arguably the biggest headache is the sheer number of internet-compatible devices on the market. While one PC screen is very much like another, a mobile user could be accessing a site on a state-of-the-art Apple iPhone, complete with Safari browser, or an ancient handset with a tiny screen.
"Every operator in the UK has about 150 web-compatible handsets," says Guillaume Peerson of mobile solutions provider Dialogue Communications. "There are around 2,500 different devices in use." So the challenge facing designers is to create sites that not only look good but also function on any device.
Access speed and cost raise a number of other issues too. Not everyone owns state-of-the-art 3G devices with all-you-can-eat downloads deals, and designers have to take into account the millions of mobile users with slower connections and/or pre-pay packages. "Some mobile operators have a 60 per cent-70 per cent penetration of pre-pay devices," says John Kaye, managing director of mobile applications builder Hands On Mobile. "You have to think about the capabilities of the devices out there and also likely download costs," he says.
The upshot is that despite the apparent minimalism of the mobile internet - most dedicated sites are characterised by pared-down text and graphics - creating intuitive interfaces for a range of handsets can be a complex business.
The mantra for designers is 'keep it simple'. Mobile screens are small, which means cutting out many of the navigational bells and whistles design of PC-based websites. "On a mobile screen, you can't have a navigation bar on every page and nor can you have a comprehensive range of browser controls," says Abid Warsi, a consultant at usability adviser Webcredible.
In Warsi's view, the ideal site is a relatively sparse affair, with navigation or menu of links on the home page only. When the consumer goes deeper in, navigation should be by 'forward', 'back' and 'return to home' buttons on all the pages. Anything more than this clutters the page and pushes content out.
And, as Dan Parker, chief executive of mobile developer Sponge, points out, such simplicity improves the chances of a site looking good across a range of handsets. "You shouldn't try to do anything that is too intricate," he says.
Drawing on Sponge's experience of designing sites and services for consumer brands and media owners such as the Northern Rock and Shell, Parker advises that every aspect of the page should follow minimalist principles. That means simple colours and graphics supporting lean text and not too much variation in font size. Too much complexity means some mobile browsers will serve up bunched and overlapping text and colour blocks - the aesthetic equivalent of a dog's dinner.
Parker adds that care should be taken when creating the nuts and bolts of the user interface. Without the benefit of a mouse and Qwerty keyboard, mobile internet users rely on the handset joystick or direction key to navigate through and between pages. "You should make that process as comfortable and intuitive as possible," says Parker.
Part of that comfort comes from letting the user know exactly where they are on the page at any given time and, according to Warsi, this can be achieved by highlighting the links and changing their colour as the cursor moves between them, driven by the joystick. It's a simple enough point make, but research carried out by Webcredible indicates that while some mobile sites do this incredibly well, others leave consumers struggling to see exactly where the cursor is sitting on the page. Warsi also advises that the requirement for text input should be minimised.
Small screen size also limits the amount of content that can be comfortably placed not only on each page but also on the site as a whole. The navigation bars that typically festoon conventional websites make it a relatively simple task to navigate through complex architecture. Without this aid, the mobile site needs to focus on providing bite-size chunks of information across relatively few pages.
So it's a case of less is more, with the nature of the content defined by strengths and weaknesses of the mobile internet itself. "What you have to do is think about what users might want from the internet when they're on the move," says Parker. Once you've considered that, you can begin to tailor content accordingly, while developing strategies to reduce the time consumers spend clicking on links to find the nuggets on offer.
In the mobile context, personalisation can be a vital navigation aid. For instance, if someone uses a site regularly, then you can collect information on their behaviour, personalise the home page and prioritise relevant content. Parker cites the example of the train times service on 02's portal. "It remembers what you've asked it before," he says. "In my case, it gives me train times on the London to Brighton line." The advantage here is that Parker doesn't have to repeatedly key in his start point and destination.
And, according to Warsi, serving up search results according to location is also a useful tactic. "This can be very effective," he says. "For instance, if you're searching for information on current films, the chances are you want to find cinemas in your local area. You don't want listings from all over the country.
Not all usability issues are apparent on the screen. As Andrew Hennings of web design company Redweb notes, the quick fix for website operators is to create style sheets that will present a pared-down site to mobile users. "The problem is that the style sheets only mask the content," he says. "The handset user sees what appears to be a dedicated WAP site but in reality all the content from the master site is downloading." Not only does this increase the time it takes for a page to render but it also exposes users to higher download bills. "Website owners should be thinking in terms of a dedicated mobile site."
But even then you have to consider the fact that different handsets have different capabilities, which creates a dilemma for designers. Do you let your creative juices flow and build a state-of-the-art site that may not work properly on many devices, or do you opt for the lowest common denominator and risk producing something stable, consistent and dull?
John Carney, managing director of mobile service developer Marvellous Mobile, says this dilemma is likely to become more acute as the number of high-end devices - such as the Apple iPhone - increases, along with customer expectations. However, he argues that it is possible to push the creative envelope without disenfranchising those with basic handsets. "We tend to build one site for high-end devices and another for low-end devices," he says.
Carney also recommends using technologies that are widely deployed across many handsets (such as Java) to power interactivity. "Java is pretty much ubiquitous," he says. "Whereas, if you build with, say, Flash Lite, it's not going to work on a lot of handsets."
Ultimately, the only way to ensure that a mobile site is user friendly is to put it in front of the public and observe their reaction. And it's not simply a question of checking that the pages have rendered properly across a range of handsets - the really important thing is establish that users can find their way from A to B with the minimum of frustration. "It's vital that you work with your consumers to test the site," says Westwater.
Over the past couple of years, Westwater has noted an increasing number of companies carrying out usability tests on mobile sites. As the importance of the mobile web grows, it's a trend that will certainly continue.
TOP TIPS FOR DEVELOPING MOBILE INTERNET SITES
- Keep it simple. Conventional web design doesn't work on small handsets and features such as navigation bars on every page or large graphics will only push core content off screen. The home page should contain all the navigation links. All other pages should have 'back', 'forward' and 'return to home' buttons, rather than a navigation bar.
- Provide mobile-specific content. Few mobile users will be spending more than a few minutes at a time accessing web pages. They want bite-sized nuggets of information or entertainment and generally won't welcome a site that is cluttered with irrelevant material. So think about the needs of the 'on-the-move' user and tailor your mobile content accordingly.
- Make it relevant. Consider filtering the information served up to customers according to factors such as gender, age, location, or previous behaviour. This will ensure they get personalised information.
- Think about range of access devices. There are hundreds of internet-capable handsets, ranging from PDAs and the Apple iPhone through to standard handsets. Screen sizes vary, as do technical capabilities. To ensure maximum reach, build using technology that is compatible with the maximum number of phones. However, you might also consider developing a high-end version for those with fast 3G connections or more sophisticated browsers.
- Interactivity: Most mobile users will be navigating with joysticks and/or direction buttons and entering text via the standard handset keyboard, so avoid asking them to do too much text entry. When soliciting information, use techniques such as clickable questions. As the consumer navigates from link to link on the page, use changing colours and font sizes to pinpoint their position on the page.
- Testing: Carry out thorough tests to ensure your pages render properly on all or the majority of handsets. Get feedback from users on the usability of the site.
MAKING SENSE OF SEARCH
Search lies at the heart of the mobile internet. Few of us relish the prospect of typing in URLs via a handset keypad so our route to the mobile web will be primarily via search engines.
And mobile search operators face a very real usability challenge when it comes to filtering and presenting information. Searches on the conventional internet can pull up thousands of results and even if we look no further than the first one or two pages, the PC screen size means we can assess what we've got quickly and then move on. That's not possible on a mobile screen, so arguably a greater degree of filtering is required.
Adam Sorroca, vice-president and general manager at search and advertising company Jumptap, is well aware of the problem. A US-based firm, Jumptap supplies search for a number of European mobile operators, including Virgin, Telefonica and Boost. And, according to Sorroca, one of the key challenges is to ensure information is presented in an easily digestible form.
"One of the things we do is to serve up results according to category," he says. "Let's say someone keys in the word 'Beyonce'. When the results are presented on screen, we break them up into categories such as 'news', 'ringtones' and the 'mobile web'. So if you're looking for Beyonce ringtone, you can go straight to that category."
The Jumptap search engine also filters sites that will not deliver a positive experience. This is done in a number of ways. At one level, the system favours sites that are designed with mobile devices in mind and these are at the top of the listings. However, given the variation in the capabilities of available handsets, some sites will not be served to certain mobile users, if the technology used is not compatible with the device. To make it as easy as possible to carry out searches, text entry is predictive. "It's based on what a particular user has searched for before and popular searches," says Sorroca.
As Sorroca admits, the success of search companies in the mobile space ultimately depends on users having a positive experience and returning for more. Thus is it is vital that Jumptap not only presents search results intelligently but also serves up high-quality, user-friendly sites.