What went wrong with the mobile Web?

Despite predictions, it's been a flop so far, but that's changing and the iPhone is paving the way

Futurists and industry analysts have long predicted the ascent of the mobile Web, in which people can traverse the Web using smart phones as easily and fruitfully as they can at their desktops. But almost three years after 3G networks became widely available, few are using it to access the Web with their phones.

Sure, some people use handheld devices to download ringtones and check e-mail -- cellular carriers have been reporting dramatic increases in those sorts of non-Web activities for quite a while. And scanning public places such as airport terminals shows a fair number of mostly business users accessing the Web over 3G networks using PC cards in their laptops.

But browse the Web from your cell phone? "There's no place to go but up," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis.

Market research firm Compete quantified the failure of the mobile Web recently in a survey of mobile phone subscribers. The April survey of 910 people found that 37 percent of mobile subscribers had purchased ringtones and other content in the last year. Of those subscribers, only 20 percent said they accessed the Web with their phones at least once a week.

"And these are people who are very savvy about using their phones," said Miro Kazakoff, a wireless analyst at Boston-based Compete. "I'd be comfortable saying that, of the other 63 percent, the number accessing the Web with their phones is in single-digit percentages." A recent survey conducted by Ipsos MORI of nearly 1,000 U.K.-based consumers roughly mirrored Compete's findings.

So why are so few people surfing the Web with their phones? And will we eventually enjoy the Web's wealth of content or the powerful new-generation Web applications while we're waiting for the train or in a restaurant. Or will we always wait till we get back to our desks?

What went wrong?

Kazakoff said the reason there is so little Web browsing with smart phones is simple: "The Internet experience on a handset is not where it needs to be for people to use it daily."

And Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD Group Inc. noted that "the experience compares poorly to the desktop or notebook."

Here are some of the specific reasons the experts cited for the slow uptake of the mobile Web.

Poor Web browsers, small screens. Rubin noted that browsers on phones usually don't display Web pages well, partly because they lack many built-in capabilities. In particular, most phone browsers can't properly display sites that use technologies such as Javascript and AJAX.

"And common file types found on the Web like Flash or PDF aren't often supported in mobile phone browsers," Rubin said.

Small screens make that problem worse. Most smart-phone screens are 3 in. or less, making poorly rendered pages that much harder to read.

Network speeds. "Speeds just aren't up to the task," Rubin asserted. Current 3G speeds typically are in the 400Kbit/sec. to 700Kbit/sec. range, which is slower than most people are accustomed to with their home connections. Even worse, many smart phones, including the vaunted iPhone, don't support full 3G service. The iPhone, for instance, supports only 2.5G speeds in the 200Kbit/sec. to 250Kbit/sec. range over AT&T Inc.'s EDGE network.

Pricing. In the U.S., you can acquire by-the-byte pricing, but if you plan to use the Web over your cell phone frequently, you'll be better off with a flat-rate plan. The problem is that those plans are expensive, as much as US$60 a month with a two-year contract. While such prices can often be justified by mobile professionals who use PC Cards to bring 3G access to their laptops, they discourage everyday consumers who tend to engage in more recreational Web browsing. And, of course, poor displays and browsers make users that much more reluctant to spend the money.

"When pricing comes down to, say, US$20 a month for data, you'll see a much higher uptake," Greengart said.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

David Haskin

Computerworld
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?