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The mobile web – aging dinosaur

There was recently a post over at Ajax Blog about Japan’s super-advanced mobile web. Serkan Toto discusses some of the intricacies of the unique mobile web that has evolved in Japan, a country where most people don’t have PCs and almost everyone uses their cellphone to browse the web.

Toto writes:

The availability of cutting-edge phones is one reason why many Japanese people don’t own a PC but would rather browse the web exclusively on mobile devices. And it’s not just for short bursts. They never write SMS either but rather thumb-text push-mails, often containing little icons, emoticons and coded youth slang acronyms. Booking flights online, ordering clothes, auctioning off used stuff, gaming, paying for movie tickets via direct debit: all of this has been possible on Japanese mobile phones for years now.

This is a very valid point. Having spent time in Japan I can definitely say that I, myself, wrote rather long messages on my phone to friends. I also spent time writing full-length emails to people in Japan who were using their phone email address as their sole email access.

However, despite the fact that Japan has a “relatively sound regulatory policy” when it comes to the mobile web, I see the “mobile web” itself as an aging dinosaur, and the iPhone is clearly the reason why.

Firstly, I feel that Japan is relatively unique in its lack of home PC users. The rest of Europe is fairly PC-heavy (just look at the main contributors to open source software and Linux itself), and they certainly have embraced the cellphone. Just this morning a Businessweek author mentioned how she can rent a bicycle in Germany using her mobile. So, the overwhelming majority of current web users probably get their access from both a PC and, potentially, a mobile.

Secondly, the iPhone clearly makes a targeted reference to “the web on your phone.” Not the mobile web, but the real web. The big bad nasty web that has awesome graphical content, multimedia and all the whiz-bang you could ask for. In a world that is continually going “Web 2.0” where AJAX is almost a requirement to build a modern site, why would an organization want to spend all the time and effort to develop a supremely awesome website, only to have to develop and attrocious dumbed-down lo-fi version for some poor schlub’s tiny little phone?

Let’s face it, folks. The iPhone demonstrates that the world is ready for UMPCs. Because that’s really what the iPhone is. Sure it is a phone, but it basically runs MacOS and can download and install new applications (software) and can do lots of PC stuff – including browse the web (the real web).

As display technology gets cheaper and materials science gets better and battery technology improves, we will definitely see more and more UMPC-like mobile “phones” on the market. As more and more individuals have acess to real software and real web on their mobile device, the need for a separate “mobile” web will fade away.

While WML is an excellent standard and is great in practice, its usefulness is running out, in my opinion. Mobiles just don’t have the same limitations today that they did even just a few years ago. With x86-based mobile devices on the horizon with the evolution of things like the Atom processor, can the “mobile web” really survive?