This month, permit me to begin by stating that I'm painfully aware that there are many of you out there who access the Internet only from your desktop computer, never relying on laptops, wireless networks, or tiny mobile-device screens. For many of you, crisp, snappy, high-speed bandwidth is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.
Oh, and let me not forget to state how jealous I am of you people.
What got me thinking about that was a pair of recent trips I took to the west coast. Like many techies, I'm addicted to the Internet and have a relatively quick connection (a wired one) from my home and office, but when I'm on the road it's a different story. As a traveling consultant, my bandwidth options include public hotspots (relatively expensive and slow); in-room wired hotel connections (ridiculously expensive, slow, and downright unreliable); mobile broadband (sometimes good, sometimes not so good); and client-supplied connections (anywhere from "wonderful" to "our security policy does not allow you to use our bandwidth"). In many cases, extracting information from the web can be downright painful.
Downgrade to Coach
Over the years, though, many websites have realized that some of their visitors use smartphones and PDAs and that many of those devices have tenuous connections to the web, so they've created two websites: a main one that features graphics, video, perhaps some Flash, and so on, and a "mobile" one that features little in the way of graphics besides company logos. For example, if you visit Delta Airlines' site by typing "www.delta.com" into your browser, Delta's servers make a guess about whether you're visiting from a laptop/desktop or from a mobile device and, if those servers guess that you're connecting from a mobile device, they redirect you to their minimalist site, "mobile.delta.com."
Now, I'm not singling out Delta for any reason--I just needed an example, and Delta does what many companies do, wisely trying to provide an acceptable web interface for devices that they reckon have small screens and slow links. I mention Delta because that's the site that provoked my own "duh!" moment: I was sitting in an airport using its expensive and slow wireless service trying to check on a Delta itinerary, watching the Delta site come up at what seemed like one pixel at a time, when a couple of neurons in my brain finally fired and I thought, "Gosh, this bandwidth is terrible and I need to check my seats on a flight, so why not just tell Internet Explorer to take me to mobile.delta.com instead of www.delta.com?" (Okay, I admit it: some days, when it comes to brain traction, I seem to have one wheel in the sand.) The simpler mobile site let me get the job done, and now it's in my bookmarks on my laptop. You can't do everything from the mobile site, and doing some basic stuff can be painful, but it's better than nothing.
That got me thinking that Delta (and other sites) probably decides whether to shift an incoming customer to www.delta.com or mobile.delta.com based on the browser. I'm not very techie about how my iPhone works, but I'm guessing that it announces itself as running "Mobile Safari" or something like that, and that's how Delta makes the www/mobile call.
Websites Working for You
What if large, commercial websites sought to maximize their usefulness to customers—a smart goal, as I'd wager that useful websites generate more sales than non-useful ones do—by targeting not just device screen size but also bandwidth? Under this approach, a site's network hardware might first do a bit of pinging to get an idea of how quickly the client is connected. Such a site would then have, say, three different versions of its site: the videos, animation, and flash version; the full-featured version with minimal graphics; and the very minimalist, text-only site offering only the most-used features. The information gleaned from the bandwidth tests would allow the organization's web servers to determine which of the three sites to direct the client to, and of course all three versions of the site would allow a client desiring a particular version of the site to force the loading of that one.
Yes, this would cost the web-based vendor more money by building three (or more or less, as the vendor desired) versions of their site—but how many web-based transactions are never completed because of slow response (?), and could template-based web design tools such as Expressions or Dreamweaver simplify the process? Well, regardless of whether the idea makes any sense , let me plead with website builders: When you're making your masterpieces, try to remember us mobile folks.