Editor's Corner

Mobile Web best practices battle it out
Creating web content for mobile devices is tough work. dotMobi, the registrar for mobile-only .mobi domains, just made it a little easier by publicly releasing its Mobile Web Developer's Guide (pdf) to the public. The guide explains how to meet the minimum requirements for a .mobi domain (namely that content be served as XHTML-MP by default) along with a large set of best practices and an overview of some of the varied approaches to the mobile Web. The dotMobi guide is impressive and was clearly written by someone who has been in the trenches (Brian Fling of Blue Flavor), but in some ways yet another set of best practices is the last thing designers need.

The W3C's Mobile Web Initiative Best Practices is the benchmark guide, but many developers feel it is an impractical and Utopian vision of "One Web" that can be accessed by any device. To quote Luca Passani, a maintainer of the venerable WURFL device capabilities database, "I understand that W3C is all about the web and some may dream about a unified web which can be accessed with equal ease by PCs and mobile devices, but this is just a dream: web and mobile will remain separate media for many many years to come (probably more)."

In response, Luca has created Global Authoring Practices for the Mobile Web (GAP), which purports to be the only independent alternative to the W3C's guide. Some of the general advice is similar, but GAP differs vastly from the W3C when it comes to nuts and bolts. While the W3C recommends creating pages as XHTML 1.1 Basic, a standard with mixed support on today's mobile devices, GAP (like dotMobi) recommends XHTML-MP, the de facto standard. GAP also focuses on adaptation--customizing pages for the specific device making the request--rather than risk locking out low-end handsets or being forced to design for only the least common denominator.

Now what's the best practice on choosing a set of best practices? For desktop Web designers the choice is largely philosophical. To borrow some terms from English grammarians, it's a split between the prescriptivists, who want to do it "the right way" with clean, 100 percent standards-compliant markup, and the descriptivists, who believe in markup that works and that designing inclusively is more important than conforming to a spec. On the mobile Web, unfortunately, there doesn't even seem to be a "correct" markup specification, and differences between browsers are so vast that an XML database is needed to keep track of them.

The mobile Web is the Wild West; it's a hostile development environment with no clear rules. But the mobile Web is also full of opportunity. A recent survey revealed that 76 percent of respondents in the U.S. and Europe had access to the mobile Web, but only 32 percent actually use it. Sounds like plenty of room for growth to me. -Eli