Application Insights: Small device wireless Web browsing

One of the many disappointing aspects of the wireless Internet from a wide area network perspective has been browsing the Internet on wireless devices. 802.11 offers the mobile user a chance to truly experience fast and rich Web browsing in a wireless environment regardless of device. Because multiple devices now offer 802.11 connectivity, from Palm and Pocket PC devices to laptops, mobile users can take advantage of high speed Internet services wherever there is a wireless LAN. And with the availability of reliable coverage and rich content, 802.11 provides a nice opportunity to re-introduce users to some of the concepts that have become something of a pipe dream during the “reality check” of the last year and a half. Mobile Web browsing on small devices is probably the most obvious application that falls into this category. Let’s briefly revisit the problems…

The “bad” first taste

The typical approach used in the past has been “Web scraping,” or creating separate portals/sites for each device and protocol, where mobile infrastructure would attempt to render selected content on small device screens that would offer snippets of information from the Web site. Pitched by many as the “Internet in the palm of your hand”, the experience has been plagued by poorly rendered pages, various protocols, slow connect times, terrible graphics, and most important of all, unintelligible, irrelevant information that nobody can use. The mobile Net mayhem is further complicated by multiple network compatibility issues, non-availability of time critical information, different device capabilities in terms of rendering graphics and color, and usability issues. Additionally, the slow speed and low bandwidth of available networks has not helped this problem much. While 2.5G and 3G technologies promise better user experiences through increased bandwidth, the time it will take to deploy them and the reliability of coverage will plague these networks and their related applications for quite awhile. 802.11, on the other hand, can offer reliable, fast, high-bandwidth coverage in a local environment. Therefore, it can be a great starting point for re-introducing mobile users to the concept of wireless Web browsing, especially if the content and experience is rich and fast. If this happens, other good things like commerce and productivity will be by-products of the experience because it will be like browsing on the computera useful experience.

Issues with delivering a good experience

Devices like the Pocket PC have shown what is possible with respect to color and graphics, and they are only going to get better as time progresses. The biggest impediments to mobile Web use lie in deploying a technology that answers a number of challenges at once:

  • If one has multiple devices and a single Web page, how does one get the rich content down to a small size dynamically and instantly over any device?
  • Further, once I’ve squeezed a Web page like Yahoo’s homepage onto my mobile device browser, how do I actually use this little page on a screen?
  • What about large file access to stored Word docs or spreadsheets if I want to work in addition to just getting e-mail? It’s fine on a computer, but how about a mobile device? How can I get those kinds of files without expensive plug-ins and worrying about compatibility issues?
  • And what if I want to switch devices and use my Web-enabled phone instead of a PDA? Do I have to have multiple content portals deployed in my 802.11 network to support multiple devices and parse content accordingly?
  • And what if I have WAN capability on my device and still want to connect wirelessly on my device? Do I have to have another client loaded to use it?
  • How can I maintain multiple sessions and windows — and am I still connected to the content if I am disconnected from the network?
  • How do I personalize my critical content so that the information presented is useful rather just plain vanilla content?

Rich Content and a good user experience, on any device.

Meet a company that appears to have successfully addressed all these issues. MobileWebSurf claims it is the first company to build a wireless infrastructure that intelligently transforms any Web content to any device over any network, including 802.11. Using MobileWebSurf’s WorldCruiser, the mobile user can access time-critical and accurate information from any Web site by provisioning graphics, icons, and pictures for any wireless device without compromising content or speed. Many companies claim to do this, but this is the first company this author has seen that actually has done it entirely from the server side, without building numerous plug-ins and thin-clients for different networks.

With MobileWebSurf’s technology, Web pages are rendered intelligently in the same format, order, and rules in which they appear on the computer screen. In addition, from the server side, they have zooming and scrolling capabilities that enable a mobile user to tap the area of the screen they are interested in, and zoom-in in real-time. The real power in this feature shines when you access a Web page with a diagram or graphic on it. You can zoom into the diagram and keep on going till it becomes viewable. Pretty handy in an enterprise application or if someone sends you an e-mail file to view. This addresses the usability of content on small-screen devices. Imagine being able to view and comment on something as granular and as complex as an engineering diagram in real-time. Features like this allow a user to have a better Web experience and make it more likely that they will find it desirable to use a small device to do mobile transactions such as checking mail, confirming travel schedules, booking hotel reservations, verifying customer purchase orders, and surfing the Internet, thus helping to fulfill Metcalfe’s Law by getting a critical mass of people interested in, and using, wireless LANs.

With attached documents like Word or PowerPoint files, the software does all the processing on the back-end at the server, absolving the wireless device of the need to have processing power or separate plug-ins for each application to display these items. Rather, the software can stream it to the device and display the desired portions in real-time using patented, intelligent algorithms.

Easily deployed with today’s browsers & devices

Additionally, in a local wireless environment like an airport or coffee shop, users will naturally show up with multiple devices. The host company deploying 802.11 access will want minimal hassle in supporting every device out there. They will not want to write separate portals and clients for phones, Palm OS, Pocket PC, and whatever else comes out in the next few years. From a cost perspective, they will not want to spend additional dollars enabling non-standard Web sites for customers. Consumers, from their perspective, do not want to have to do anything to their mobile devices. If the device comes with a Web browser, they would rather use what is on their device than load anything new. MobileWebSurf’s WorldCruiser provides these features by utilizing the browsers that come with mobile devices, and doing all the “hard work” of rendering and screen/content optimization on the server-side.

The software also renders “soft keys” that can be used to instantly update the “look and feel” of any Web page right from the wireless device, be it a phone or PDA. Users can re-order and re-prioritize links and menu-trees on the fly, and the software will re-display it in real-time. Most other approaches require a user to go to a secure Web page and make those changes there, to be sent to the mobile device upon completion of the update. When a user wants to change something, they often have to go back to the computer. This approach has been the death of many a mobile initiative, and it will continue to have a negative effect on the usage of 802.11 as a public consumer play if users have to go through this as well. The soft keys also address the issue of resuming a session that was interrupted by a network disconnect, or by jumping to another Web site. They give the user the option to “remember” what their last screens looked like, and allow them to connect back to that session, or refresh and start anew. This is one of the nice features I wish I had on the regular wired Internet at times.

Taking the same experience to the outside

Finally, in order to strive for the ultimate user experience, the software client that works well in an 802.11 setting had better deliver the same content and richness in the “outside” environment. In previous articles, I’ve expressed the opinion that wireless carriers must ultimately deploy the type of architecture it would take to accomplish this to gain consumer traction. The same technology that MobileWebSurf uses to provide ubiquitous access in WLAN environments can be used to provide that ubiquity in an outside environment. Carriers can and should provide the same rich experience in the least resource-intensive manner to both indoor and outdoor wireless applications. Most importantly, they can do this using their existing 2G and 2.5G infrastructure, without needing to install or change anything on the consumer (client side) or content side (enterprise back end).

Pavan Mandhani, CSO of MobileWebSurf, puts it this way. “Carriers can provide access to any critical information securely on present low-bandwidth capacity as MobileWebSurf uses intelligent algorithms to provide a good user experience. This I believe will cut down the churn rate, as well as increase the airtime for carriers. It also allows them to show a great suite of applications immediately in a local environment like 802.11, which they can leverage to drive usage on their networks.” This will also cut upgrade costs and future investment by orders of magnitude.

Providing that the wireless devices and network coverage are there, this new technology combined with 802.11 has the potential to really show users how they can benefit in the short-term not only from their laptops, but also from their mobile devices. When this happens, it will educate and accustom those same users to take the experience out into the WAN environment because the same rich experience they would get in an 802.11 environment will be seamlessly available to them in the “outside” world.

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