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Navigating the Mobile Web
Navigating the Mobile Web

The Mobile Internet's unique attributes make it very different from its sister, the World Wide Web. Lack of a keyboard, small display screen, and slow networks all contribute to the wireless Web's reputation of being difficult to get around. Furthermore, people's usage patterns on the wireless Web are also different - they rarely browse, the sessions are shorter, and they want to get the right information now instead of five minutes later.

As more and more companies create services and content for the mobile Web, it's increasingly clear that the traditional way of typing the cumbersome URL will not work as an access method for people to get to these new mobile destinations. For the mobile Web, service providers may want to consider the following four new and sometimes conflicting requirements to make site access easy and intuitive for their mobile data subscribers:

  • Easy to type: The user should have to type as little as possible. Given the limited input functionality of the phone pad this requirement is very clear.
  • Brand-friendly: The access method must enable the brand managers of the mobile sites to promote themselves to their customers, as it is absurd for customers to have to type URLs into their phones to gain wireless access to the site.
  • Scalable: The access method must be able to handle an increasing number of available sites gracefully.
  • Voice-friendly: The voice-in, data-out method of accessing mobile sites is being trailed now and many see it as the way to replace the need to type on the small phone pad. It's important that the navigation method support such future possibilities.
Currently, three major access methods are promoted by various vendors: wireless search, number-based addressing systems, and directory. Here are their pros and cons:

Wireless Search
Typing full words or phrases such as "flowers" or "books" on the tiny phone pad enables the user to gain access to a wide assortment of mobile content and services. However, it fails to meet many of the requirements specified earlier. Users need to type full terms and phrases, which they rarely do. It's not scalable because search has a high signal-to-noise ratio and has a tendency to return a large set of results, which, on the small LCD screen, are very inconvenient to scroll through. Furthermore, search engines generally have difficulty indexing dynamically generated content from databases, and the nature of the majority of mobile sites is often dynamic - mobile commerce, banking, personalized- and location-based content, and the like, thus rendering the wireless search engines useless.

Number-Based Addressing Systems
To solve the input issue on the mobile phone, a few companies have started to offer numbering schemes as addresses to mobile Web sites in place of URLs. The idea is that instead of typing "mobile.ftd.com" to go to the FTD wireless site, the subscriber simply types a number that FTD subscribes to from the service and advertises to its users. While the number-based system solves the data input problem on the mobile phone, it fails to meet other requirements. It is not brand-friendly, as numbers are not natural brand names; therefore they are not memorable and are difficult to recall. Users will not be able to access a mobile Web site if they don't know the number. It also remains to be seen if brand managers will be willing to brand their mobile numbers in addition to their Web addresses and 1-800 numbers, to enable mobile access to their sites. Furthermore, numbers are not Web voice-friendly. It's difficult to imagine users speaking a number into the handset to access a site as voice activation becomes prevalent. They're more likely to speak the desired wireless site's brand name (e.g., "FTD") to gain access.

Directory
Many mobile portals present information to the user via a directory structure such as Yahoo!. Mobile sites are categorized into listings. Directories enable the mobile user to discover sites and navigate to them easily, through a natural scroll-and-click metaphor since there's no need to type any letters on the phone pad. Directories are easy to use if there are a limited number of sites listed in them. However, directories are often nonscalable. Imagine a mobile directory with 10,000 sites, and 30-40 sites for a given category. It would be very difficult for a mobile user to scroll through the entries to get to the last few sites on the list. As more and more mobile sites come online, directories clearly will not be the be-all and end-all interfaces for the user. Furthermore, directories are not necessarily brand-friendly. Because directories often categorize a Web site inconsistently - depending on the taxonomy of the directory vendor - brand managers find it difficult to create a consistent message to enable customer access. How can a marketing campaign succeed when the message is, "If you're on carrier A, find us under the 'news' section; if you're on carrier B, find us under the 'sports' section?"

Conclusion
Clearly, there is no single access method that will satisfy all the requirements for mobile Web navigation. To enable mobile subscribers to discover what sites are available on the handset, the directory is the best solution. To enable them to access a mobile site quickly, a number system seems to be the answer. However, to enable brand managers to advertise their mobile sites, and thereby increase the adoption of the mobile Web, both the number system and the directory fall short. It seems there must be a combination of these functionalities to create a well-rounded navigation experience for the mobile subscriber.

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