iPhone’s Promise of “The Real Web”

Back in January of 2007 when the iPhone was announced, many people cheered. People cheered the touch screen. People cheered the beautiful design. People cheered the fact that the rumors were right.
I cheered what Steve Jobs said about the built-in Safari Web browser: that it would allow you to surf the real Web. In other words, that it would be a real Web browser, capable of displaying Web pages just like a Mac or PC.

Seems like no big deal, right? But even back in early 2007, this concept was important. Few other smart phones allowed you to do this. Most had crippled browsers that barely displayed more than text. They broke formatting and turned Web sites into jumbles of words and tiny images. Other phones were worse, only allowing you to view some Web pages. Still others required you to bookmark specific pages on your Mac or PC because you didn’t even have a way to enter in a URL on your phone. Without a touch screen, we had to navigate links with buttons, one-by-one. It was painful.
So the idea of being able to go anywhere and view anything was a big deal. And it set the new standard for Web viewing on mobile devices. Every iPhone competitor matches this standard with a pretty good browser. So the era of “the real Web” on mobile devices is here.
But a funny thing happened. Web developers started making versions of their Web sites optimized for the iPhone. Some had these versions available shortly after the iPhone launched. But since then many of the major sites like Google, Yahoo, FaceBook, Amazon, and so on, recognize when they are being browsed on an iPhone and will display an iPhone-specific view instead of the one you see on your Mac or PC.
So Apple gave us the real Web, but the Web site developers took it away.
But that’s OK. Because the result is actually pretty good. After all, the iPhone’s screen is smaller than a Mac or PC screen. The Edge and/or 3G network is slower than broadband. So as long as the Web site developers are designing specifically for the iPhone, and not leaving out any features of their Web sites, then we’ve actually got the best of both worlds.
But Web designers need to remember a few things when creating iPhone-specific sites.
1. Have as many features of your site available as possible. Strive to have 100% of your site working in an iPhone version. Don’t make it a “lite” version of your site, at least not when it comes to features.
2. Allow the user to switch to the non-iPhone version if they want. Even if you are 100% sure that all features are there — some combination may not work right or someone may just prefer to use the site the way they are used to.
3. Make it clear that the person is looking at an iPhone version of the site. This may be the first time they are coming to your site, and they may never try the Mac/PC version if they don’t like the iPhone version.
4. Don’t use a old standard like WAP to create an iPhone Web site — WAP is for crappy little phones that don’t have a real browser. By all means, make a WAP version of your site. But don’t force that on iPhone users.
5. Try not to require the user to log in to your site, if possible. It is so quick and easy to log in to Web sites on a Mac or PC, and half the time the browser remembers your ID and password anyway. But on the iPhone, it is painful to have to use that touch keyboard to enter an ID and password sometimes. There are a lot of people who just avoid typing on the iPhone at all costs. At the very least, only require them to log on once and then remember them for weeks or months after that.
6. Don’t make your pages smaller and shorter, to compensate for mobile net speed. The general wisdom for mobile Web development is to give them little pages so it doesn’t take too long to download. But on the iPhone this can be annoying. You could wait for a few seconds for a page to load and then only get three links. Getting to the info you want would take 10 of these small pages and minutes to navigate. Annoying. Instead, iPhones should get the same general navigation and number of links as Macs and PCs. Just present them in a layout that fits the screen. In other words, better to have a 15-second page load time with all options presented, than a dozen 3-second page loads as you navigate through simple menus.
7. Consider offering a low-bandwidth and high-bandwidth version of your site for the iPhone. The first would be for people on the Edge network, or for people who think 3G is too slow. The second would be for people who are almost always on WiFi networks. iPod Touch users would fall into this category 100% of the time.
8. Allow people the option to see your iPhone design using Safari on their Mac or PC. This is a pretty radical idea, as most sites don’t do this. But sometimes the iPhone version of the site is just right for what you need, no matter what devices you are using. So why not?
Another issue is, of course, Flash. Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone yet, and may not for some time. So if you use Flash on your site, provide alternatives. For instance, all I needed was the address of a restaurant while driving around looking for it. But their Web site was 100% Flash so I wasn’t even able to get something as simple as an address from it. Why couldn’t they have put a simple image and text page up for those that couldn’t view Flash? It would have been 1% of the effort put into the Flash site.

Comments: 4 Responses to “iPhone’s Promise of “The Real Web””

    11/24/08 @ 8:16 am

    Very interesting article! Keep up the good work!

    12/9/08 @ 3:20 am

    great i love the web on the iphone

    4/1/09 @ 11:44 am

    Is it possible to still go to the non-iphone versions of websites? That’s the whole reason I got the ipod touch. I just use broadband and most of those sites don’t have all the features of the regular sites.

      4/1/09 @ 11:48 am

      Depends on the site. Many, like Amazon, have a link that allows you to exit the iPhone version and go to the regular site. But if another site wants you to force you to see their iPhone site, then the best you can do is to contact them and let them know they need to offer an option.

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