The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

The Web on a cell phone? A dialogue

The Cyberbrains had the following discussion over e-mail the last few days (I know, we are so old school.) It all started when Clyde asked how Web pages looked on an iPhone and evolved into a treatise on the viability of the mobile web. It included Cyberbrains Clyde Bentley, Joe Kokenge, Jeremy Littau, Deborah Mason, and me, Hans K. Meyer. It’s kind of long, but we thought it pretty profound and appropriate for this forum, so we’re posting it here in its entirety in a point-counterpoint format. We hope it makes sense, and more importantly makes you think about why people use their cell phones, the Internet and when they use them together.

CLYDE: AT&T seems to have increased the operating speed of its cellular Web connection recently. I’ve just started reading a few papers on my Treo because it is now fast and easy. Today I read the NY Times, the Columbia Tribune and the Missourian.

The Times is great. It is only slightly slower than reading on my laptop. The Trib has some layout problems, but eventually reformats and does a pretty good job with color photos and stories. The Missourian is problematic. It immediately tried to download 160 MB of homepage. That homepage started as a big block of headers and navigation links. When it reformatted, it put half the page in big black blocks with purple type.

I had not read our version of the Taser story, but had read Tom’s e-mail on my phone. I read the story on the home page, then it gave me a sidebar link the the “Captain says..”, but that turned out to be the same story.

When I scrolled down to the bottom of the page, the ads went a bit crazy. I’ll keep playing with this, partly because I’m now addicted. BTW, on the Treo the type reformats to one column wide and about 12 point, with 14-point bold headlines. Very readable. The photos have good color. Haven’t tried the video links.

Can someone tell me how the page looks on an iPhone?

JEREMY: Digmo surfs OK on my iPod Touch, not sure how similar the tech is to what the iPhone offers. The page does load slower than I expected though.

CLYDE: You are using WiFi. Most phones use cell web. We need to get more tests on that.

JEREMY: Ah, then yes, very different. I know very little about cell web, as I don’t sleep with my Blackberry like Hans. 🙂

HANS: Ok, I do not sleep with my Blackberry. Actually, I broke it, so thanks Jeremy for bringing up a very painful memory!

From what I understand, Blackberries and Treos have native software that truncates pages so they’ll fit on the smaller screen. Most of the major sites include code that interacts with this truncation software to make the sites look good. Smaller web pages do not. For example, I could see ESPN great on my Blackberry, but not MyMissourian or DigMo.

Apple uses entirely different software that tries to replicate the same page you’d see on your Apple desktop. It doesn’t truncate (whether connected on wifi or cellularly). The bugaboo I’ve heard on iPhones is sometimes the zooming feature doesn’t work, but all web pages should display fine.

Here’s an article that makes the distinctions better than I could.

By the way, I’d argue with you against young people using their cell phones to access the Internet. The old interfaces were so bad that all you could do was download a ringtone or see some news headlines. The only people I ever seen on the Internet have an iPhone, but that’s half the campus now.

JOE: Hans, I’m with you there. Surfing the net on a phone is really only worthwhile if you have an iPhone. Unless there’s some new fangled cellphone model out there that I don’t know about. It’s funny too, why can I get Internet almost everywhere on an iPhone but I still have to “find” wireless with my laptop. Ridiculous. If they can do it on a phone, they sure as heck could do it on my computer. And even if your download speeds are awesome, using an iPhone to actually do stuff on the Web is a pain. I mean how much can you actually do for how long on a screen the size of a tarot card. I want free wireless everywhere on my computer. That’s what I want.

CLYDE: Whoa! There are plenty of cell phones out there that are great Web platforms. Actually, the iPhone is a latecomer to that genre. Nokia, Sony-Erickson and Samsung have been turning out high-quality Web browsers for years. We don’t know about them because our phone system just reached the level that it can actually do the Web work.

We stayed 2G (second generation) long after Europe and Asia moved to 3G.

Now Asia is evolving into 4G, which allows good TV reception. The high speed that AT&T offered over the last two years was actually 2.5G. But 3G came up a few months ago, significantly increasing the speed of download.

IPhones get their Web reputation from using WiFi, which is also available from most other phone manufacturers. But WiFi is seldom available if you are mobile. It requires that you go to an identifiable place and keep there while you are connected. Not very handy.

Mobile Web, on the other hand, uses the telephone’s own system. It is far more predominate than mobile WiFi – even my $15 AT&T Go Phone could access the Web. I will bet a cup of coffee that your own phone has Web access, Joe.

My major use is to access Google Maps when I am on the road. Works great. I also look up products when I am shopping and read the Times while in waiting rooms.

Readability on phones is not bad, especially if the site is reformatted. Even the Missourian formats into one column for reading. One column on a phone is about the same width and type size as a column in the newspaper.

It’s pretty easy to read. It’s quite amazing how much you can do on that screen. The Treo has a stylus, which I find is much more accurate than my fat fingers.

The New York Times and others format so that the headlines, photos and sidebars are easily read. They go without the annoying design “button” text that take up so much space on the Missourian.

Your desire for universal wireless has some limitations, Joe. It would take WiMax to give you enough range to even walk around town. WiMax, however, does not use the same frequency as WiFi. I understand the next iPhone will have WiMax capacity, but so far you need to get a special modem for your computer to make it work. And buy a subscription (no free lunch with WiMax).

Don’t short those little phones. There are millions and millions of them out there and the phone companies are making a big push to get folks to use their Web browsers.

You can find out about 4G, WiMax, here.

Here is a review of 5 great phones. Here is a peek at what is happening in Asia:

And if you are still confused, here is an interesting piece on how mobile phones differ in the European and U.S. cultures.

HANS: This is a discussion we should be having on the Cyberbrains. I’m well aware of the phones that offer Internet. My free Motorola V70 offers Internet as well, but c’mon Clyde, can you use it?

You made the exact same point on your tryout of the Nokia N90. It’s just not functional enough for more than occasionally looking up directions, texting or downloading a ringtone. I don’t have any hard and fast research to back this up (and I think we should do some) but I’d be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that Web use on ANY phone is limited. I remember when a certain professor got an iPhone last year about this time and I had to help her set most of it up.

I think what we are really talking about here is diffusal of innovations theory. No matter how many cool gizmos and capabilities phones offer, everyone except the early adopters will only use what they need it for. How many people actually need Internet 24/7, OK besides you and me.

Don’t know why I’m so fired up about this. I guess I just missed the other cool discussions you guys were having.

JEREMY: Another point is you have to pay for those super great phones. iPhones have some social cachet, I can’t even name another slick Web surfing phone. When in doubt, I want the free phone, and that usually doesn’t do all the big stuff of the others.

Truthfully, when I think of my phone, I don’t think of it as a web device. I don’t even text message that much with it. I know in other countries like South Korea the phone is more central, but I don’t see it being used for the Web a lot in everyday life here in Columbia unless it’s an iPhone.

JEREMY: I’ve heard you make a good point about South Korea in particular, that it is a commuter culture more suited for reading material in a mobile way. In the U.S., that has translated to newspaper use because our subways aren’t really great for being wired or getting phone reception all of the time. So perhaps if it takes off stateside, it could happen in commuter culture (of which we will all be members in two years when gas hits $20 per gallon).

The one caution I would make is that technology isn’t what changes society, it’s how we use it that changes society. The use of a killer app in one culture might have little use in another, or they might use it differently.

We saw with OhMyNews that citizen journalism as they experienced it was very, very different than ours. The web surfing technology looks damn cool (if my iPod is any indication), but there has to be cultural reasons to adopt it. I have surfed the web with my iPod something like 5 times in the six months I’ve had it. Four of those times were in the first two weeks after I got it. I have yet to figure out its utility for me (interestingly, it has little to do with finding a hotspot) even if the technology is pretty cool to me.

Apple seems to have found a way with the iPhone, combining a lot of essential features into one product. Maybe I’d surf more on my phone if I had one. But to be honest, beyond the cost I don’t want to shell out that much a month for service. To me, the latter (phone plus data monthly fees, according to /. those will run about $110 per month) is probably the big barrier for entry to me, and I’m sure it is to a lot other potential adopters. Oh my god, I think I’m a cheapskate.

But on a serious note, I agree there are a lot of research avenues here.

CLYDE: This is a good discussion and could lead to good research. I wonder what people do with their phones other than talk on them? Do they take photos? Do they listen to music (most new phones have some MP3)? Do they Web surf?

Part of what I was pointing out in that European article is that we “assume” a phone is not a Web tool. The Europeans and Asians do. Now we have 3G, we may also. It makes a BIG difference. But right now only Apple is taking advantage of that.

JOE: Clyde, thanks for the articles. I will check them out. Jeremy, I remember reading this article about cell phone novels in Japan. These become actual bestsellers, on paper even, but they start out pecked out on a cell phone. I thought of that as a fun example of the print/web intersection. And, it really argues against my complaining that I can’t do work on a mobile device, which I would love to do instead of driving. My phone is ancient, though, and maybe that’s the problem. If I had media money to invest, though, I would put as much as I could in a mobile browsing technologies and ways to get cool content on it.

Cross my fingers and hope for a house in Brentwood. It’s going there eventually. (As for me in Brentwood, that’s more of a long shot.)

CLYDE: By the way, if you push AT&T you can get a Web bargain. I pay $19.99 a month for unlimited Web and 200 messages a month. It is called Media Max 200 and is not advertised. I added it to get my MU e-mail via the Palm VersaMail program. All I do is hit “sync” and it updates my mail and calendar. But now I am using the Web more and more.

When I temporarily had another phone, I just used Webmail. I still do that with my G-mail account. Works like a charm.

Now the biggie:

How are we going to get this discussion onto our blog? Should we just copy the thread in order and plug it in? Or somehow summarize it. It is too good to leave behind in an inbox.

DEBRA: OK, I am a Mac snob but I will say that while there are many phones that offer web surfing, etc., there is a look and feel and “fun” element of the iphone that certainly was not matched by my highly utilitarian Blackberry. I can’t keep my kids away from my iphone. True, there will be imitators quick enough, but even though there are imitators to the ipod nothing comes close in sales. It’s not just the “fun” element of the Ipod, but it’s a combination w/ the easily accessible and reasonably priced content on the itunes stores. Content and device, I think.

So what is it about these devices that go beyond functionality to make the device part of the entertainment. That is what matters to my 15-year-old.

JOE: Debra, I agree. Not that this is about age, (and I don’t mean anything by that) I just realized that at my age and social position now, I feel the reason of practicality and the pull of the “shiny and slick.” I always would have liked to work from a mobile device but never thought about buying a Blackberry. But I would think about buying an iphone, when, it appears, the functionality is more or less the same.

But, there’s no reason why utilitarian shouldn’t be sexy and fun, other than the designers were too lazy to make “x” utilitarian, sexy and fun. And, newswise, I say that’s the bar that’s been set for any product. At least when it comes to young people. Like Slate.com is the New York Times for college age kids who actually read. And, sad to say, I think what makes something sexy and fun is marketing, at least in part. The iphone design is super-cool and slick. But so are those 80 foot billboards in Times Square and looming over the corner of Sunset and Vine. How does that slogan go, “Advertising is the fuel of a free press?”

JEREMY: One other thought I have is that Debra is describing a sense of cultural cachet that goes with owning one of these, but is that the realm of early adopters or something that drives the diffusion of innovation? To me it would seem that if you’re not dealing with the volatile teen/tween market, then cool and hip aren’t selling points so much as utility. I find myself thinking that if Apple will continueto have success with the iPhone, they’ll have to sell its features and uses more than its social hipness.

It’s the same reason I don’t own a riding mower; I think it’d be fun to own one and ride around, but I don’t have a lawn. And what’s thepoint of owning a Prius if you don’t drive very much? As much as I want to think these situations are classic laggard behavior, I think that’s more rooted in the rational self-interest of capitalistic market behavior. I think Hans is right that D of I theory has some anchors in this discussion.

By the way, it occurs to me that what Clyde has been posting on is the media dependency side of U&G theory, where I am more talkingabout the utility and needs gratified side of it. Theoretically speaking, we’re talking the same language even if we are disagreeing in plain terms.

This discussion is making me feel old. We need to stop that.

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July 30, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley, From The Cyberbrains, Hans Ibold, Hans Meyer, Jeremy Littau, Joe Kokenge | Leave a comment