Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

Dao of the Mobile Web

Many smart people have been revisiting John Allsopp’s April 2000 A List Apart article, Dao of Web Design, and finding inspiration in it.

Last week I was honored to give a keynote at Web Directions Unplugged. Because this was the first time meeting John Allsopp, it seemed like the right time to reread the Dao of Web Design.

I was struck by a couple of things in rereading the article. First, it is amazing how prescient the article is. It is as relevant today as it was eleven years ago.

Second, I realized that while most of the recent commentary on the article focused on the idea of adaptability and flexibility—particularly as they pertain to layout, that for me, the Dao of Web Design article poses a bigger question.

In the article, John writes:

What I sense is a real tension between the web as we know it, and the web as it would be. It’s the tension between an existing medium, the printed page, and its child, the web. And it’s time to really understand the relationship between the parent and the child, and to let the child go its own way in the world.

What I found myself wondering is if mobile, and in particular mobile web, isn’t a new child born of the desktop web that we need to learn to let go of in some way.

It is clear to me that mobile is a new and unique media. Tomi Ahonen makes a compelling argument that mobile is the seventh and largest mass media. He also documents eight unique abilities that set mobile apart.

If we agree that mobile is a new medium, then what John wrote back in 2000 is instructive:

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, “ritual”, and often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

At dinner with John, we talked about this issue. Neither of us had answers, but he was already ahead of me in asking the questions: if mobile web is a child of the web, what do we need to give up and how are we limiting ourselves?

P.S. I had a fantastic time at Web Directions Unplugged. Thanks to John, Maxine and Rosemary for putting together a wonderful event. Thanks to the attendees and speakers for the great conversations and presentations.

Links Don’t Open Apps

Are you having trouble convincing people that they need to develop a mobile web site as part of their overall mobile strategy?

I have a solution for you. Ask the people you need to convince if they do any of the following:

  • Send email to their customers?
  • Participate in social media?
  • Search engine optimization?
  • Advertise online?

Each one of those marketing efforts is based on links. And links don’t open apps.

It seems like a basic concept, but the fact that links can only reliably open web pages is often forgotten.

This is one reason why mobile web has to be part of every company’s strategy. When someone encounters a link via an email newsletter or shared via a social network, they should be able to view that link no matter where they are and no matter what device they are using.

Technically True vs. Practical Reality

Inevitably, when I talk about how links don’t open apps at a conference, someone who wasn’t in the audience will point out that on some platforms like iOS, you can register URL schemes to open apps.

While this is technically true, it isn’t practical for most communication because:

  • Not every platform offers equivalent functionality. On Android, the way to invoke applications is intents which works very differently.
  • Even if you could somehow create the same url scheme on every mobile platform, the url would only work if the user had your application installed which you can’t guarantee nor control.

While saying that links don’t open apps isn’t “technically” true, it is a practical reality.

Power of Hyperlinks

The realization that links don’t open apps has triggered for me a renewed appreciation of the power of hyperlinks. When people talk about the differences between native apps and mobile web, they usually talk about difference like performance, cross platform development, and other technical factors.

Rarely do we talk about hyperlinks and the power it provides the web. No native platform will be able to replicate the universal utility of links any time soon.

We should stop worrying about whether or not native apps can do certain things better than web technology, and instead talk about what makes the web unique, powerful, and universal.