The [mobile] Internet is not a big truck.

loading-a-dump-truck-in-a-quarry-courtesy-of-konouniondc

The [mobile] Internet is not a big truck.

I’m paraphrasing Ted Stevens, former Alaskan Senator, who once once famously said similar words on the Senate floor:

“…the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material…”

While Stevens was lobbying against Net Neutrality, his analogy somewhat applies to the challenge of developing mobile websites for bandwidth-starved emerging markets. You can’t just dump a full website on mobile devices and expect users to enjoy that and come back for more. It is why we’re developing a responsive web design approach plus progressive enhancement, to detect and adapt the website to the user’s device, viewable area and technical capabilities. We’re calling it “Responsive Plus” for “responsive, plus progressive enhancement,” because there’s a lot of confusion out there about what all these different approaches mean — adaptive, responsive, progressive.  Even Stephanie Reiger, one of the world’s most renowned mobile innovators did some polling to get consistent language agreed upon and had a hard time.

The Achilles’s Heel of “responsive web design,” a new web development approach that allows websites to change the experience based on the viewer’s device, is that at it’s most basic level with no progressive enhancement, all users must download the entire desktop-optimized web experience in order to get the design to customize for their mobile, tablet, desktop, TV, car device, or whatever new device comes down the road. So they’re downloading images that can be 1,000 pixels wide in some designs, on their 320-wide mobile phone. It’s not an efficient process and leads to huge download times, high data costs for users and a lot of frustration.

Compared to wired cable, DSL or fiber optic Internet connections, the cellular connection between a phone and the tower (or wifi router) has limited bandwidth and latency, so when we’re developing websites specifically for mobile experiences we need to be mindful of these challenges and only serve the optimized content that a device can use.
Slow speed kills websites that aren’t fast because users quickly abandon slow sites. In fact, how fast the page loads is one of the paramount features of Google that helped them climb to the top of the crowded search engine market in the 90s.Web performance monitoring company, Compuware’s research found that users expect their mobile web experience will work just as fast as the desktop web version:

Mobile users’ expectations for mobile website speed continue to increase. 71% of global mobile web users expect websites to load as quickly, almost as quickly or faster on their mobile phone compared to the computer they use at home – up from 58% in 2009. However, almost half (46%) said websites load more slowly on their phone.

This is especially challenging because even in the developed world, cellular networks are still evolving — and BBG properties in emerging markets have exponentially more challenging issues as their infrastructure, bandwidth and latency speed evolves.To combat this, we’re working with a cross-organization group from the Pangea team, MobileTech and developers in various capacities at other BBG properties who are willing to participate in the regular learning group discussing the issues, sharing code and best practices for developing server side detection and progressive enhancement for responsive web design. MobileTech’s experimentation is spurred by an Innovation Norway grant that they received from the Norwegian government to develop new tools and skills for emerging businesses, so we’re partnering with them to learn and test the technology in our diverse markets.

[Featured image courtesy of: Kono Union DC]

If you or any BBG developers you know would like to get involved in the responsive plus learning group, please me know at wsullivan at bbg dot gov or on Twitter @Journerdism.

 

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(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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