Commentary

Wapped Upside My Head

According to a recent survey by Azuki systems, 52% of mobile users access the mobile Web, but 80% wish it were easier to get information there. Aside from the mobile Web numbers being considerably higher than we see from more formal metrics, I am not sure exactly what numbers or sentiments like this really mean. Are users having trouble just getting onto the Mobile Web or finding things there? Well, probably both.

Truthfully, I am getting quite bullish on the mobile Web lately, just from using a number of sites that are finding cool ways to pile on the features without overwhelming the screen. I spoke recently with Nick Taylor, president of Usablenet, which develops sites for American Airlines, Marriott and Amtrak, among many other brands. "All of our clients have been surprised by the amount of transaction activity they get," he says.

Having a pre-existing relationship with a vendor helps, I think. Amazon and Fandango's mobile sites get my business largely because the trust they built with me online lowers the m-commerce bar considerably. Here is where consistency across platforms really pays off. Usablenet's Amtrak execution, for instance, is as plain as they come, with a logo and a set of menu options for checking train status, booking reservations and toggling a Spanish version. The logo and color scheme of the Web site mirrors the Web experience, however, and those slight brushes of familiarity are enough. The powder blue and orange color schemes around the reservation forms reassure the user somehow that the experience, the engine, the reliability are in there somewhere. Does this familiarity make a difference in getting me accustomed to booking on my phone? I think so.

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Taylor also told me that while many brands start their mobile extension by porting only a few Web features to mobile, increasingly the brands are looking to mobilize more of the online experience. As an iPhone user, I regard this as a good thing, because mobile Web sites work especially well here. I think the full Web experience has been way oversold on smart phones generally. In day to day use, give me a fast-loading streamlined mobile Web version any day. More and more, the mobile sites are looking as palatable on standard phone browsers as on smart phones. Usablenet's Strand Books execution is a great case in point. Again, the interface is more functional than lush, but it feels as if the full feature set of the Web experience is all there. I can run searches on the most obscure authors, find and order them.

Another good mobilized recreation of a Web experience is the new PerezHilton.com. Sometime garish, childish and pink really can constitute a brand. Hilton's famously snarky Web site is just an ugly scroll of pictures with superimposed scrawls and loose gossip. It looks pretty much the same on mobile, and that is a good thing. They know that oversized, violated images are the brand identity.

Curiously, some of PerezHilton's snark smarts are lost on brands that should know better. Three of the coolest-looking news aggregators, Huffington Post, Michael Wolfe's Newser, and the new DailyBeast all fall off the horse that brung 'em when it comes to mobile. Huffington Post, which leverages images well to embarrass its enemies online, is just a scroll of headlines. Likewise, Newser forgets that we love its at-a-glance quality that allows for drive-by news scraping. On mobile, however, it is just a scroll of headlines and links. Hey, I could get that from the Huffington Post. DailyBeast's iPhone-specific Web app is a nice try, with headlines that drop down story details. Alas, they chose the least interesting piece of the Web site to mobilize, a "Cheat Sheet" of "must-read" stories that most of us probably read by the time we get there. Missing here is the exclusive Web material that may give the young site some of its identity.

I think we are at a point where the mobile Web can handle more features than we assumed just a year ago. The heaviest users of the platform also are the ones with the most able phones, and it makes sense to start programming for users who regard their phones as portable PCs.

But this means that media and retail brands have to think hard about their core identity. Media brands like Time and CBS are executing mobile so well that they make me rethink my relationship with them elsewhere. A Huffington Post or DailyBeast, which I embrace fully online, lose me to others on mobile because their essential qualities are missing here. Every new platform poses an opportunity/challenge to brands to gain and lose customers. I think the challenge is very real now on mobile.

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