Whether News Websites Finally ‘Get’ the Web or Not, it’s Time to Focus on Mobile

by Shawn Smith on July 29, 2008

iPhone applications - Flickr photo by Tyler Howarth

Image by Tyler Howarth

News websites have made huge strides in the past year in the online arena, although it can be argued that no one really has the web all figured out just yet.

But before newsroom staffs start getting too comfortable in making web video and tweaking their pages to be more SEO-compliant, I’d like to sound a subtle alarm (apologies if you’ve heard this before):

START THIINKING ABOUT THE MOBILE WEB!

Why? Because the push toward mobile communication is snowballing (it might be a small snowball now, but think of how quickly things change).

America Likes Mobile, Just Ask iPhoniacs

Plenty of barriers still exist to getting the U.S. phone market into a full-blown mobile internet – cost being a major hurdle. Yet with the success of iPhone 2.0, how far off is a more mobile-oriented U.S. internet really?

AT&T stated in is Q2 earnings report that “In the first 12 days following launch, sales of the iPhone 3G were nearly double levels achieved in AT&T’s 2007 iPhone launch,”said  AT&T in a statement.”

And the success of the iPhone has inspired a slew of imitators and a surge in smartphone buying, as Verizon (Not the iPhone’s carrier) notes that “over 30 percent of the carrier’s device sales are now smartphone purchases.”

And for good measure, here’s some recent numbers as reported by the NYT:

Of the 95 million mobile Internet subscribers in the United States, 40 million actively use their phones to go online, twice the number of two years ago, according to Nielsen Mobile

How They Do it in Japan

One thing that did not cease to amaze me while traveling in Japan was the prevalence of mobile as a part of life. All ages and sexes glued themselves to thin screens on trains and bus rides.

While Internet cafes do exist in Tokyo, nearly everyone has access mobile phones and Japan’s websites are geared toward those users. Usability and design aesthetic are thrown out the window when it comes to the standard web, as Japan’s sites are very useful when viewed through a handheld device.

Also, email is a huge component of communication – largely done via phones. Texting isn’t quite as common because of the cost of SMS. (And don’t even get me started on the prevalence of QR codes)

So what is this getting at? Just that mobile internet is a seamless part of life in Japan, and with the growing U.S. interest in smartphones, I propose a more mobile America is on its way.

What Can News Sites Do?

Start investigating!

The NYT recently wrote about the company Verve, an organization that “offers publishers the technology to create Web sites for cellphones.” What does that mean? Here’s some examples (NYT):

Publishers can upload local ads to their cellphone sites using Verve’s software or have Verve place national ad campaigns on their sites. Verve can deliver a particular ad to, say, people age 21 to 30 who live downtown and have searched for articles about the bar scene.

Verve sounds like a good service, but I wouldn’t know from experience. If you’ve worked with them, please comment on how they’ve helped your mobile presence.

In the meantime, if you want to try something a little less time-intensive, start by creating a mobile stylesheet. Here’s a couple of links I found this morning that could be helpful:

Tips for creating iPhone-optimized web apps

Tips for creating mobile stylesheets

What Are You Doing?

If you’ve already started working on your  mobile strategy, share what you’ve found successful and unsuccessful. Thanks for the insights in advance!

{ 4 comments }

Jeff July 29, 2008 at 8:26 am

Shawn, good roundup.

The NYT’s new iPhone/iPod Touch app is a masterpiece, IMHO, and sets a new bar w/r/t UI and presentation from what users can expect from a mobile news platform. The missing piece from nearly every mobile news implementation I’ve seen is interactivity — most sites portion off their mobile news into lesser versions of the site, which negates a lot of the commenting and reader feedback available via the main news site. I see that becoming a greater focus for mobile in the next year or so.

Longer term, I don’t see news/media sites creating and maintaining two different codebases for their main site and a mobile offering. I think if there’s one lesson learned with the popularity of the iPhone, it’s that people want the full-on internet. I see devices (iPhone, Android, Nokia/Opera) and bandwidth (3G and beyond) catching up to laptops/desktops and being capable of browsing the full on internet without compromise — and in about 1-2 years out, the whole idea of a cut-down “mobile” site will seem as quaint as those cumbersome Flash intros every website convinced themselves they needed about a decade ago.

~Jeff

Shawn Smith July 29, 2008 at 8:37 am

Thanks for the comment Jeff. I think you are right about full-on internet on U.S. phones. I think that’s where the U.S. will leapfrog Japan as far as mobile goes. I’m really excited for that and the possibilities are nearly limitless as far as emerging business models and new sources for revenue. Can’t wait to get my iphone :)

Adam July 30, 2008 at 1:04 am

Your tip about creating a mobile stylesheet piqued my curiosity, so I visited this site on my iPhone — lo and behold, it displays the same regardless of device. The good news is that WordPress (in particular) has plugins that make it very easy to implement a mobile “edition.” As a new full-time user of both WP and the iPhone, I was happy to find this and reported as much in my recent post about useful plugins.

John Paul August 14, 2008 at 11:14 am

I think Jeff is right about the “mobile web” becoming more like full-sized Internet. However, in terms of site design and development, I think there will remain a need to do mobile design that is different from one’s desktop-based Web site.

After all, the screens are still smaller. More importantly, a lot of what goes into mobile Web design has to do with the context the user is in while using the site (which is quite different than desktop Web users). People simply use the Internet differently when they’re out and about with a mobile device vs. when they’re at their desk.

Also, I’m curious to hear if anybody has worked with Verve, and what their experience has been.

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