Mobile and Web: restating our assumptions

Much like Max Cohen, the tortured mathematician looking for order in chaos in the classic movie Pi, we all find ourselves constantly reevaluating our assumptions and thinking on the issues at the intersection of mobile and web. Which is how it ought to be. In such a fast moving environment, sticking one’s head in the sand isn’t really an option. By the time you raise your head and take a look around, chances are you will be looking at a completely different landscape.

Looking back at some of the posts here on mobiForge dealing with the various approaches to publishing content to a multi-device web, we note that our understanding of the issues has evolved, and in some cases changed, even if some things still remain true.

Back in July 2011, we charted the increasing complexity of the device landscape for developers. We noted that in this new reality, web developers can no longer make generalized assumptions about the devices their customers are using. Looking back on that now, it’s clear that we hadn’t quite grokked the vast array of different classes of devices that were coming our way. Wearables, anyone?

In November of that year, we reviewed the many techniques for building mobile presences, and underlined the fact that there are many approaches depending on business imperatives. We noted image weight problems with RWD. At that point our conception was that RWD achieves resolution independence rather than true content adaptation; an interpretation which now seems a tad narrow.

In January 2012, we showed just how much adaptation goes on (via server-side device awareness) on the leading sites on the web. What we perhaps didn’t emphasise enough then is that this may be difficult to achieve for a single developer lacking the development resources available to these larger companies – no matter what approach you take to multi-web publishing.

We went on to chart the shift in publishing content to the web in an historical context, comparing the experience of web content creators with that of other mass media. Specifically we asked: which is the medium – the web or the device? Perhaps that is a debate that is too early to call.

More recently, we posited that the mobile web has a weight problem, and examined the top trafficked sites on the web to see how the leaders do it. We concluded that being trim will never be out of fashion. But from a development point of view, just what is the cost of staying in shape?

For RWD, we have proposed a solution to address responsive images and the weight issue of responsive sites using server-side elements. We acknowledge that that won’t be an approach that everyone will want to adopt, although we think it is a viable one.

We’ve seen some of the most respected thought leaders in the web design and development space weigh in recently on these topics. Luke Wroblewski recently published a piece on why relying on screen size in responsive design implementations can be an incomplete and sometimes mistaken approach to publishing truly responsive content.

In his piece Luke councils:

”Don’t assume screen adaptation is a complete answer for multi-device Web design. Responsive Web design has given us a powerful toolset for managing a critical part of the multi-device world. But assuming too much based on screen size can ultimately paint you into a corner. It’s not that adapting to screen size doesn’t matter, as I pointed out numerous times, it really does. But if you put too much stock in screen size or don’t consider other factors, you may end up with incomplete or frankly inappropriate solutions.”

He echoes many concerns raised by dotMobi CTO Ronan Cremin in his BDconf presentation back in 2012.

Check out video of Ronan’s presentation here:

Alternatively, head over to Slideshare for a copy.

On the flip side of the debate, Ethan Marcotte, the originator of responsive web design, took up the topic of device awareness and context:

“The ever-evolving device landscape isn’t something we get to ‘manage’. This is not a game we win.”


“Taking a longer view, given how problematic and fuzzy this notion of “context” really is, the number of problems we can solve automatically for our users are dwindling. We can’t know reliably how much bandwidth a user might have available to them, whether they’re outside or stationary, or whether they’re mirroring their display to a wider screen – or, or, or. No amount of code – front- or back-end – is going to fix that. What I think we can do, however, is solve the problems we can, and then acknowledge the gaps.”

Two or three years ago it sometimes felt like the debate was a binary one between RWD and all other approaches. Fast forward three years and we are seeing a lot more nuance to how that debate is being played out. It is interesting to note this shift away from absolutist thinking on developing for the multi-device web towards a broader understanding of all the options that are available to developers.

And as the device landscape continues to diversify, we look forward to regularly restating our assumptions.

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