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All webs in one, One Web for all (part 1) — 17 March 2009

This post is the first in a series of three posts on the One Web vision. Part 2 and part 3 are now available.

I can haz One Web

The W3C promotes the One Web vision. Every now and then, I hear the term coined in discussions around mobile Web standards and it usually follows some harsh complaint at our attempt to impose supposedly flawed Mobile Web Best Practices. Yes, the Mobile Web Best Practices standard is grounded on the One Web vision. No, it does not carry any stern restriction that would force authors to adopt a "one size fits all" line of conduct.

Since the One Web vision is essentially misunderstood, I thought I should debunk some of the myths that surround it and clarify the concept: what the theory is about, what it encompasses, what it implies and does not imply for the authoring of mobile-friendly Web content. I will try to keep things short and simple, and will not address too specific details here. I already kind of missed the "short" promise: this post is the first one in a series of three.

Before I start delving into the architecture of the World Wide Web (yes, it is fun!), you probably wonder why you should care about One Web to start with. Alright, let's have a quick look then!

One > two

Let's consider the following example:

George has been maintaining a Web site for the last few years. The Web site works well on usual desktop browsers but George recently started to receive feedback from users who had a very bad experience when trying to access the Web site from their mobile devices. George follows some of the recommendations of the Mobile Web Best Practices specification and prepares a simplified version of the Web site for mobile devices. He then advertises the new version:

  • go to http://george.example.org to access the regular desktop version
  • go to http://mobile.george.example.org to retrieve the mobile version of the site

To make sure that users find the mobile version of the Web site, he even puts a handy link to the mobile version on the home page of the desktop version.

Many existing Web sites follow the same pattern, but, this usually does not achieve the One Web vision. Why? We surely want to favor the development of mobile-friendly Web sites, don't we? Among other things, problems arise in this example because these Web sites now use two sets of addresses (URIs). Different areas are impacted:

  • Missing content:
    Trimmed-down versions are usually synonym of extensive cuts in the amount of information that is accessible. Users on the go have many distractions and want to be able to find their way through the information easily. They surely want the browsing experience to be adapted to the device they are using, and that usually translates into shorter pages than the ones targeted at desktop browsers. But why would they want to access less information? Accessing the Web from a mobile device is not something users do because they have to, it is something they do because they want to, as pointed out by a study from IBM last October.
  • Search engines
    Most search engines use the number of links that target a Web page to compute a rank used to sort search results. The higher the rank, the more visible a Web page becomes. Desktop Web pages that want to link to George's content will link to http://george.example.org, and mobile-friendly Web pages will surely link to http://mobile.george.example.org. Two consequences:
    • the mobile version of George's Web site does not inherit the rank of the desktop version. From the point of view of the search engine, the mobile version is simply a new Web site, not linked by anyone to start with, and thus unlikely to show up in results.
    • links to George's Web site now contribute to two different rank counters and do not sum up. George's Web site is not as visible as it could be.
  • Shared bookmarks
    Many users share their bookmarks among different devices and/or among different groups of people using different devices. How could George's Web site be bookmarked? There is no canonical URI that could be used for all devices. The link to the mobile version of the Web site on the desktop home page is a good idea, but some devices may not be able to render this page at all. Even when they are, the user experience is poor because the user has to render a page that does not work properly, and to find his way to the mobile version link, before he can actually see the mobile version of the Web site.
  • Branding
    Advertising multiple URIs leads to confusing messages. The following image shows an example of an advertisement to a Japanese Web site whose entry point depends on the mobile operator of the user.
    Example of an advertisement on multiple URIs
    A study from Bango also reveals that more and more users actually type familiar URIs on their mobile devices. The familiar URIs are the ones they are used to entering on their desktop browsers. Users unaware of George's mobile-friendly version URI will keep entering http://george.example.org and miss the mobile version specifically tailored for them.

The solutions to these problems are in One Web, but we need to do a slight detour and visit the foundations of the Web before we get to One Web in practice.

[On to part 2...]

by Francois Daoust in Current state, Technical 4 comments Permalink

Comments, Pingbacks:

Comment from: James Pearce [Visitor] · http://mobiforge.com

I guess I should refrain from commenting until you've proposed your solution to the questions you raise, but this seems a little simplistic so far. A few points:

  1. Will you claim that these URLs violate the One Web vision? http://mysite.com, http://mysite.fr, http://de.mysite.com. I hope not. They are different sites for different contexts (i.e. habitation in a different country, or perhaps language preference). Just like mobile: people on the move want to do different things.
  2. I wasn't aware that One Web was about ensuring SEO. I think most of the search engines are smart enough to have figured out how people are crafting such sites in the modern world.
  3. 'Missing content'. Well! That's precisely the point: there are many things you may find presented to you on a desktop site that make no sense in a mobile context - and vice-versa. No - you design a site to provide to your users precisely what they want and need. (Do you propose that Amazon should list their US, French and German product ranges together, just so there's no 'missing content'?)
  4. Your example of Japansese URLs is indeed confusing. But that's slightly different: these are all mobile sites - and the different URLs are required because each network favours different markup syntax. Yes, this should be hidden from the user, since I bet the functionality of the sites is equivalent. But your argument seems to be gearing up to be about sites for mobile users vs non-mobile users. That's not going to be about syntax - it's about servicing different users in entirely different circumstances.

I think most people expand 'One Web' to mean 'One URI provides consistently thematic content, regardless of browser software'.

This is admirable, and agreeable. And, since all it normally requires is usually a little markup adjustment and a re-skin, it's achievable too.

But we must not forget something very important: there are humans on the other side of these screens. What matters is that they are mobile, not that they have a mobile.

However smart their device, however good their browser... the chances are that these humans will want to do different things when they are out-and-about to when they are sedentary in the home or at work.

Which means they deserve different content and different services. Which, to follow the One Web logic through, means that you must have a different URI for those services.

(And of course, the right to be able to switch back and forwards between the two: something you seem to scoff at for some reason.)

I can't help thinking these arguments have bounced around the echo chamber a little too much! All I can do is humbly direct you to my shot at a practical solution to this problem. It attempts to reconcile an unwavering vision with the reality of designing services that users want:

http://mobiforge.com/designing/story/a-very-modern-mobile-switching-algorithm-part-i

...whilst throwing in some magic 'browser detection' pixie dust*, and not bound to any URI pattern the developer may choose.

James

* What this problem really needs is 'user context detection'. I don't want to know about the plastic in their hand as much as the state of their mind...

PermalinkPermalink 2009-03-18 @ 05:18
Comment from: Francois Daoust [Member]

Hi James,

Thanks for the feedback. The post is voluntarily high-level so as to target a wider audience than just mobile Web experts. Well, that just failed, didn't it? ;) Nuances can be introduced in each of the points I made. I will introduce some of them later on, some go beyond the purpose of this series.

The notion of user context is essential and I will mention it in the final part. URIs are cheap, so using different URIs for different contexts is 1) a good idea, 2) mandatory anyway to be able to switch from one view to the other. One Web is all about having a canonical URI to identify the content and thus preserve a single global address space. In practice, this view is too simplistic as the limits between different representations of the same resource and different though related resources (e.g. one resource per context) is not clear. I doubt there is a generic answer to that problem. The solution implemented on mobiforge.com is a good one, especially since it is easy to implement and allows users to select their context. If users could advertise their context automatically, e.g. "I'm in a couch right now, killing time over a Wi-fi connection", that would be fantastic too. No matter the solution, the question as to whether delivered content for different contexts are different resources or not still stands. I think the notion of thematic consistency englobes the fact that similar content ought to be found in different representations, but I also think that thematic consistency may need to be broken to serve different contexts, and that it's not antagonist to the One Web vision, but rather at a different level.

Being able to appear on top of search results talks to people. One Web is not about that per se, but if it improves SEO as a consequence, why would it be a bad thing? Having smart search engines is good. Requiring search engines to be smart on stuff that could perhaps be done in a cleaner way is not something that strikes me as a wonderful achievement.

I do not think most people expand 'One Web' to mean 'One URI provides consistently thematic content, regardless of browser software' unfortunately (which matches the definition made in the Mobile Web Best Practices, as far as I can tell). I think many people still expand it to mean 'The same representation regardless of the user agent', and that is not carried by One Web. That's the main point I'd like to point out.

PermalinkPermalink 2009-03-18 @ 10:19
Comment from: Franklin Davis [Visitor] · http://s60.com/browser
@Francois--

I too believe in and promote the goal of a single URI structure for the same content.

But so far I have not seen any site that actually implements this: a nicely tailored mobile presentation automatically for small devices or a rich desktop version, from the same URI.

nytimes.com works in one direction -- any desktop URI (e.g. to a specific story) will automatically display the same content formatted for mobile. But the reverse breaks: forwarding the link from the mobile device to the desktop shows the mobile format, not the "original." Also, they do not give users a choice, so e.g. high-end smartphone users cannot see the full page.

Does anyone have examples of sites that exemplify One Web practices?
PermalinkPermalink 2009-03-18 @ 13:53
Comment from: James Pearce [Visitor] · http://mobiforge.com
Franklin, I'd like to think http://mobiForge.com itself follows a sensible pattern.

It utilises detection (to make sure that you're probably in the right place) and prompts - then redirects - if you are not. You can also use the URI to indicate your preference up front.

(In our case the sister site, http://mobiforge.mobi is the mobile equivalent).

But the way the redirection, detection and interstitial is done means that the path and query string are preserved.

So if someone sent you a desktop bookmark and you opened it on your phone, you'd be whisked off to the right place (unless you'd indicated to us that you *did* want the desktop version!).

It sounds more complicated than it is :-) but we've written up the algorithm and indeed already implemented it into a WordPress plugin... so who knows? You might start to see many more implementations like this in the wild.
PermalinkPermalink 2009-03-18 @ 14:44

Contacts: Dominique Hazael-Massieux