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dotMobi Making the Mobile Web a Reality in North America

The Face of the Web, the annual study of Internet trends by Ipsos Insight, reports that Internet browsing with mobile phones is showing robust growth in many global markets. France and the U.K. are exhibiting the strongest growth in this trend, and in Japan, 4 in 10 adults browse the Internet on their wireless handset, double the rate from 2003. However, in the U.S. and Canada, growth in Internet browsing on a mobile phone is flattening.

In the U.S., mobile Web sites largely go unused because sites are difficult to find, have limited content and function, and are poorly designed. Only 4% of North American households report using the mobile Web today.

Downloading content to mobile devices can be slow, exceed screen size and be difficult to navigate, all of which leads to increased consumer costs to use the Internet via mobile phones.

According to Forrester Research's report, "The State of The North American Mobile Web," the mobile Web will remain second-rate until:

  • Content and function support users' goals. Half of the sites reviewed by Forrester failed to provide the content and functions required to do simple mobile Web tasks, like finding flight information or getting stock updates.
  • Site design improves. Navigation and presentation problems permeate the consumer experience. Most of today's sites provide little value.
  • Users can find mobile sites more easily. Mobile Web features available today from a mobile version of a site are often buried, making them hard to access or even find.

Part of the problem is that many existing Internet sites are grounded in desktop PC-oriented services and were not designed with a mobile phone in mind. In the U.S., consumers use a PC as our primary Internet access point. This usually means using a full keyboard, a large monitor, one dominant operating system and browser, and there are generally no limits on how much data can be downloaded in one sitting. This model works well when we have time to take advantage of all that information.

But using the mobile phone to access the Internet is a different story. There are more than seven types of operating systems, including, Palm, Symbian and Windows CE — and at least seven types of browsers, such as Firefox, Mozilla and Opera. The devices have numerous ways to input data: some use a typical phone pad, some use QWERTY and some have limited keyboard functionality. And with all of them, the screen size varies greatly. Most importantly, we don't "browse" the Internet from a mobile phone in the same way we do using PCs. On a phone, we want contextually relevant information delivered in bite-size bits.

When we access the Web with a mobile phone, our expectations for ease of use are the same ones we have when accessing the Internet from the PC. Namely, we want it to be simple and reliable. On top of that we want information that is relevant, timely and quick. But we soon discover it doesn't work very well.

For the developer, designing content and services for mobile phones that meet these expectations is difficult. How do you design content when there are so many variations in devices, browsers, operating systems, operators, etc.? Operators have tried to deliver a consistent and reliable user experience by developing "walled gardens," which deliver pre-set menus of content. But as many consumers will tell you, choices are limited and reflect a "one size fits all" orientation.

In the early days of the Internet, companies like Prodigy, AOL, and CompuServe gave users a stable and controlled environment to browse good content. This met the needs of the time and subscribers grew modestly...until the boom. What happened? Standards like HTML were widely adopted as did tools based on those standards that enabled everyone to easily access the Web — and also allowed users to publish their own content (and to do so cost effectively). Ultimately, there was a standardized way for content developers (from Amazon, to Home Depot, to your local plumber) to generate Web sites accessible by any Internet user, regardless of his or her Internet Service Provider.

History does repeat itself, albeit with slight variations. Today in the mobile Internet, we are at the early stages, where good content is found within the walled gardens and mobile Internet usage has not taken on the critical mass of consumers. To grow the mobile Internet in the same way that the PC-based Internet evolved, what is needed is a standards-based approach that is backed by a cross-section of the mobile industry that has a stake in its success. Enter dotMobi — the informal name of mTLD, Ltd. dotMobi's backers include the "who's who" of the mobile and Internet industry. They all share the same goal: growth of the mobile Internet in a user-centric, achievable and standardized way.

To achieve that growth, dotMobi has launched the first in a series of Switch On!™ Guides. These guides are based on the work of leading mobile companies as well as participation in the W3C Mobile Web Initiative. dotMobi is committed to developing Switch On! Guides based on open standards with a focus on predictable user experience and interoperability. This brings the standardization needed to make mobile Web sites work for both consumers and for content developers. By following the Switch On! Guides, developers can create sites that work independently of carriers or phone types, and they provide content designed to meets needs of users on the go. And since dotMobi is backed by many of the world's leading telecom and Internet companies, there is little doubt that the principles behind the Switch On! Guides will quickly gain adoption.

And to make sure consumers can easily locate these sites, dotMobi has launched the ".mobi" domain, which is the first — and only — top level domain dedicated to delivering the Internet to mobile devices. Domain names using .mobi are designed to lead users to made-for-mobile Internet content and services that can be quickly accessed and utilized.

Today, for example, the Yahoo! URL is http://wap.oa.yahoo.com; AOL's is http://mobile.aol.com; ESPN's is http://proxy.espn.go.com/wireless/espn/ and the ABC News mobile URL is http://wap.go.com/abcnews/. Now, with .mobi, users can simply type yahoo.mobi or aol.mobi or espn.mobi or abcnews.mobi, and know that the site will work on a mobile phone. Keep in mind that mobile Web users don't want to access all of CNN.com. Instead, .mobi sites are about addressing what mobile users do want — bite-sized portions of information such as weather, directions, news and sports updates — and delivering it so that it can be navigated and read on a small screen.

Once content developers are able to create mobile sites and consumers are able to find them, the question of distribution arises. Up to now, content developers had to rely on operators for both placement and for billing. But if you are able to create sites that can be accessed by anyone regardless of their location or operator, you now have the option to offer your content directly to the customer. As m-commerce options continue to improve and gain acceptance, the reliance on operators for billing also diminishes.

Is this all bad news for the operators? Absolutely not. The operators need to encourage additional data traffic. If the Internet becomes friendlier and offers more optimized and relevant choices to the average mobile customer, those consumers are far more likely to pay for and use data services, thus increasing operators' revenue.

Given the expense of mobile phones versus personal computers, there is no doubt that — on a global level — many people will access the Internet primarily by using mobile phones. In fact, globally, just over one-fourth (28%) of mobile phone owners worldwide have browsed the Internet on a wireless handset, up slightly from 25% at the end 2004. Many industry observers, such as Forrester, predict that by overcoming mobile Internet usability hurdles, dotMobi is likely to create strong demand for new content and services, and significantly drive up mobile data traffic. This is sure to provide a new revenue stream for companies who meet the needs of the mobile user.

The promise of the mobile phone to become the communication and computing device of choice is about to be real. Now the US market and the players have to step up.

Written by Alexa Raad, VP of Marketing and Business Development, dotMobi.

By Afilias Mobile & Web Services, Expert Provider of Mobile and Web Technologies – Afilias Technologies Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Afilias plc, is an expert provider of mobile and web technologies that help companies to reach their customers, regardless of device, content, or context. Products include the DeviceAtlas device intelligence solution, the goMobi mobile website publishing solution and Developer tools such as mobiReady. Visit Page

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