In the beginning, Berners-Lee created HTML and the Web. And the Web was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Tim moved upon the face of the routers. And Tim said, "Let there be tags," and there were tags. And Tim said, "Let there be design in the midst of the content, and let it divide the content from the content." And in the beginning there was universality, and everyone could parse the HTML, read the web pages, and Berners-Lee saw everything that he had made, and it was good. And the night followed the day, and the years passed ...
In time, it became clear that not everyone was playing by the creator's rules. Compatibility and accessibility issues revealed that the Web wasn't really the Eden-esque garden of information that new users expected it to be. For many, the appropriate resources were difficult to find and accessespecially with non-standard interfaces. Software manufacturers and designers alike had eaten the forbidden fruit and had developed features that prevented many people, particularly the disabled and those using mobile devices, from viewing their web pages.
The time for penance is now, explains Greg Heumann, a Phone.com executive. "It's estimated that by 2003, there'll be 2 billion people with mobile phones. Chances are that a large proportion of these people will want to use these devices to access the huge amount of information that is available online." Heumann believes that people will embrace these itty-bitty two-inch screens to view content on the Web.
The real change, according to Heumann, is that designers need to provide for the variety of different interfaces that users might employ to access information. He believes this is a reasonable task. "The extra work involved in providing mobile connectivity is negligible. The majority of this is with regard to UI (user interface) design. Developers must think about that because it's not something that can be easily automated."
The XML answer
To accomplish this, it's essential that developers design their sites so that the presentation is separate from the information. The answer to this is XML (the eXtensible Markup Language), a meta-language that enables developers to define mark-up languages according to set specifications and syntax. WML (Wireless Mark-up Language) is an XML application, developed by the WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) Forum, used to create pages intended for consumption on mobile devices.
Another piece of this jargon jigsaw is the Composite Capability/Preference Profiles (CC/PP) exchange protocol, a creation of the W3C's Mobile Activity group. It allows a web server with CC/PP functionality to deliver the appropriate content for users, depending on the sort of browser and device they are using, and the limitations of their interface.
Johan Hjelm, a W3C fellow from Ericcson and Chair of the W3C's CC/PP Working Group, believes that in order for mobile access to really work, a new approach needs to be taken towards web development. "Designers have been doing the wrong thing for five years. The original intention of Tim Berners-Lee was never to create a new printing press, but a heterogeneous environment. The important thing about a web-based presentation isn't the graphics and design, but the interaction."
He describes the impetus of widespread Internet access as "a return to the roots for the Web, with mobile devices as the catalyst." Hjelm sees the concept behind the W3C, both with regard to mobile access and in general, as a drive to "unify the information space. A space where the presentations are different, but the information is the same."
But is this enough? Heumann isn't so sure. "It's not uncommon for many sites to have several hundred links on a single page, but this obviously isn't feasible on the screen of a mobile phone or even a PDA. The way we like to work it is that on each screen you can choose from nine different links, and a tenth option that will move you back up the site tree. These options can all be accessed using the ten numbers on every phone's dial pad."
It seems inconceivable that the paragraphs and paragraphs of information written for purveyance on a WebTV, a PC, a Mac, or a similar platform could be appropriate for a mobile user with a limited interface. "The requirements of a mobile user are different from those of users working through a standard web browser. They tend to want very specific information, or to perform very specific tasks. That might mean buying a CD or finding a bus timetable. Usually that won't extend to general browsing."
He warns us, though, not to dismiss human ingenuity, despite the massive hurdles that stand in the way of mobile connectivity. "The applications that will be available in a few times, I believe, will be absolutely mind blowing," prophesizes Heumann. "But the technology to make this become a reality already exists. One application that exists today allows you to enter search criteria for a CD or a book, and then purchase that product on the Amazon web site using the 1-click settings configured while on your desktop computer."
Editor's Note: In part two Josh Smith points out that we need to make changes in our approach to design not only for handheld devices, but for those who have disabilities too.