The Mobile Web: Information Indigestion

BucketWhilst recently trapped in a private hospital room with my two-year-old son for 10 days I was provided the opportunity to experiment with the mobile web. That is, rather, I was forced to endure the eye-aching limits of the tiny screen on my Treo smartphone and the painfully lethargic data transfer rates of Bell’s 1X network just to get my daily fix of the web.

This was something of a novelty for me as, living in the Yukon, I don’t have access to an internet-capable digital cell network.

(Apparently, according to a variety of sales people I’ve quizzed at the Bell Store in Whitehorse over the last few years, a local 1X network is “coming soon” and “they’re working on it.” And if you check Bell’s web site, according to the coverage map, it’s here already. All the same, I won’t hold my breath.)

So my entrapment in a medical facility located within a 1X area, as unfortunate as the circumstances were, gave me ample excuse to indulge.

Or maybe “indulge” is the wrong word…

The web on your cell phone is like having a bucket of KFC chicken all to yourself when you’re really hungry. At first, it smells awesome and it sure looks tasty, so you dig in. The first few bites are yummy, a little greasy maybe, but it’s not often you get to sample the Colonel’s secret recipe (unless you have a heart-attack-death-wish, that is).

By the time you manage to choke down the last bite of that first piece, though, you’re starting to feel a little nauseous. But you carry on, eating piece after piece in the bucket, working hard to satisfy your craving. You know you’ll regret it hours later when the poultry sludge will crudely works its way through your distraught bowels, but right now, the crunchy, fatty, juicy flesh is so satisfying.

Like the aroma that permeates the neighbourhood around a KFC outlet, the mobile web, in concept, is mighty enticing. Ready access to news, information, and webmail on your cell phone, what could be cooler than that? Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for information indigestion to set in, and the bill at month’s end is the financial equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge.

Bowel humour aside, the mobile web can be summed up neatly with two words: slow and expensive.

I first began accessing the web regularly over a decade ago and the mobile web experience of 2006 is a lot like those days of yore. For example, my Treo’s web browser came wisely configured with image display turned off to save on bandwidth costs and page load times. The result is a retro web experience that recalls the aesthetic limbo of Netscape Navigator version 0.96.

What’s more, most contemporary web pages just aren’t well designed for display on a small smartphone screen, so paragraphs and images tumble over one another like the proverbial dogs and cats in a downpour.

Then there’s load time. Remember the 14.4K modem? Painful.

Even with images turned off, some pages that I commonly visit on my Mac would take several minutes – some up to 5 minutes – to load on my smartphone. But in the hospital, time is in no short supply, so I often selected to endure these delays just to learn the latest rumours swirling around Microsoft’s upcoming iPod killer, the “Zune“.

Silly me. Time may have been on my side, but visits to medical facilities are rarely financially beneficial experiences. After just a few days of using the web on my smart phone I decided to call Bell up and ask how bad the damage was.

“Oh dear,” the CSR responded. My blood ran cold. She explained that barely 5 MB of web traffic on my Treo had cost me just over $80. Ouch. But I had a large audience of family pining for news of my son’s hospital progress. I’d been publishing regularly to his blog directly from my cell phone, so I couldn’t kick the mobile web habit yet (or so went the excuse in my head).

The kindly Bell CSR took pity on me and adjusted my bill so I’d pay just $60 for the month as part of a formal data plan. This deal allotted me a whopping 35 MB of data transfer. Some breathing room, but I’d still have to browse with caution. Clearly, I wouldn’t be buying any tracks from the iTunes Music Store on the mobile internet.

Fortunately, I found further respite quite by accident. And, wouldn’t you know it, on the mobile internet, relief is spelled “G-O-O-G-L-E”.

It turns out that when one performs searches using Google on a smartphone, the search engine reformats resulting pages into a mobile-friendly format, stripping away all images and superfluous background code. It makes the mobile web almost bearable and definitely legible. From the moment I stumbled upon this, I lived the mobile web through Google’s eyes, and almost enjoyed it.

Clearly, the mobile web is a long way from being either practical or affordable. North America’s cell phone networks are world-renowned for being behind the curve in terms of both quality and speed, so perhaps handheld web browsing in Tokyo rocks. But based on my recent experience with Bell’s network, I can’t see the web showing any significant movement away from the desktop in the near future.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 28, 2006.

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2 thoughts on “The Mobile Web: Information Indigestion

  1. Is it one of those things that once we do get “it”…meaning both the physical technological capability and the mainstream Yukon adoption of that technology it will already be passed its prime. I am by no means up to date on current technology but would like to have a regular fishing podcast. Even though podcasts are not new, I am worried that once I can actually pull this together, it will passed its prime. I guess that as long as people still enjoy and can access it, its all good.

  2. Dennis – Believe me, podcasts are at the very beginning of the popular curve.

    They also may always remain there in the current form, or morph into something else that has more reach (e.g. not just for iPods).

    But just the fact that you even know what a podcast is – shows you’re way in front of everybody else, e.g. the non-geeks.

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