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Use Google as Your Gateway to the Mobile Internet

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To make your web site more appealing to visitors with mobile devices, use the help of the Google Wireless Transcoder. Ivan Pepelnjak describes how it works and how you can benefit from it.
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Mobile Internet Challenges

If you’ve ever tried to browse the web using your favorite mobile device (PDA or mobile phone), you probably quickly discovered two facts:

  • Compared to a regular workstation, a mobile device is infuriatingly limited.
  • Most web sites are not well adapted to mobile visitors, making web browsing extremely unpleasant, if not downright impossible.

The limitations of mobile devices are pretty obvious. You’ll immediately notice the lack of a decent input device. A mouse (or its emulation) is virtually nonexistent. Keyboard entries are a royal pain—more so if you have to use up to four thumb strokes to get a single character.

When you’ve sweated through the URL entry and you have the results, you’re probably surprised by how little fits on the screen (and how much screen space the meaningless images, banners, ads, and logos consume). Mobile device screens are much smaller than our workstation monitors:

  • iPhone, the hottest gadget in town, has a screen resolution of 480 × 320 pixels.
  • A high-end iPAQ from HP is 640 × 480 pixels; less-expensive iPAQ models are 320 × 240 pixels.
  • HP’s smartphone, the iPAQ 510, is 220 × 176 pixels.
  • A high-end Nokia Communicator is 800 × 352 pixels; my water-resistant Nokia 5500 is 208 × 208 pixels.

According to the W3 School’s Browser Display Statistics page, the minimum screen resolution on a workstation is 800 × 600 pixels, with 85% of users having higher resolutions. Jakob Nielsen recommended in July 2006 that web sites should be optimized for 1024 × 768 pixels.

As if hardware limitations aren’t enough, there’s a whole universe of software quirks. To start, mobile devices use at least three different browser paradigms:

  • High-end devices use web browsers that are comparable to workstation browsers (Safari on iPhone, Internet Explorer Mobile on Windows Mobile, Opera Mobile on a variety of platforms).
  • Devices with severe hardware limitations—typical mobile phones, for example—have embedded browsers that support Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) 2.0 specifications. The WAP 2.0 suite includes a scaled-down HTML (XHTML Mobile Profile), so you can at least access most web sites, but they might look very different from what you would expect.
  • You can still find older mobile devices that support only the WAP 1.2 standard, which uses a completely different markup language, Wireless Markup Language (WML). These devices cannot access regular web sites directly.

The mobile browsers that are derived from their workstation counterparts offer familiar functionality, including relatively complete CSS and JavaScript support. WAP browsers are usually more limited; for instance, they don’t support JavaScript, but rather WMLScript, a language similar to JavaScript but downloaded into the browser in a compiled form.

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