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A person holds a new Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system on October 11, 2010 in New York, New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A person holds a new Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system on October 11, 2010 in New York, New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Part Three: Going mobile

Why you need a .mobi site Add to ...

Tidy's Flowers has been around, in one form or another, for more than 100 years. During that time, the Toronto flower store has seen the bulk of its customers change their shopping habits – from in-store visits to phone orders to the Internet.

This year, Tidy's anticipated another change in how consumers shop, and decided to do something about it: the business decided to launch a version of its Web site specifically designed for smartphones.

More related 'Going Mobile' series

“Our clientèle has moved to the internet almost completely,” says Tidy's co-owner Jim Lye. “We figured they have to be able to place an order from their smartphones.”

In the past few years, an increasing number of small and medium-sized businesses outside the technology industry have designed mobile-specific versions of their Web sites as a means of capturing the smartphone consumer segment. The move toward mobile spawned a brand new domain name suffix in 2006, when users were offered for the first time the chance to register domain named ending with .mobi.

The .mobi extension is similar to other popular suffixes, such as .com or .net. However .mobi Web sites are required to adhere to a number of standards that make sites easily viewable on handheld devices. As such, .mobi Web sites are designed exclusively for use on the smaller screen of an iPhone or a BlackBerry.

The Tidy's .mobi site is a good example. The entire site is built to be long rather than wide, so a smartphone user doesn't need to scroll horizontally to view content. Whereas the regular Tidy's Web site contains more than 400 options for flower purchases, the .mobi site is far more bare-bones. Smartphone users are simply given a few drop-down lists to select options such as style, budget and recipient, as well as a small text box for additional instructions, and a Submit button. The minimalist design ensures mobile devices won't be overwhelmed with data – which, on most cellular data plans, could cost a user money.

The .mobi standard represents one of the first attempts to provide a standard for how a mobile site should look. As such, it can be a useful template for small and medium-sized business-owners looking to develop their company's first mobile site. However, there has been increasing debate as to whether .mobi is really necessary.

Indeed, there is nothing stopping businesses from simply adhering to the .mobi guidelines – which largely regulate how a site should look on a mobile device – without actually purchasing a .mobi name. The suffix itself has been criticized for taking too long to type on a smart phone that doesn't have a full keyboard.

In response, many companies have opted instead to integrate their mobile sites within their existing domain names. The most popular way of doing so is simply by adding a “.m” to the beginning of the Web site name (for example, m.google.com). Some sites also auto-detect when a mobile device visits the regular Web site and redirect the user to the mobile version. In effect, companies can easily recreate the benefits of a .mobi site without purchasing a new domain name.

The practice of building custom mobile-specific sites is waning slightly, as some business-owners opt for another approach altogether. For example, the Tidy's Flowers .mobi site only launched in October, but Mr. Lye says, in the long run, his company will likely use it as a stepping stone to what he believes will be an even better mobile experience: a custom-built app.

Mr. Lye's vision is to build an app for BlackBerrys and iPhones that would give users much more functionality than the .mobi site. The strategy comes with added costs and complexity, but has the added benefit of putting a quick and easy link to Tidy's on a customer's smartphone, making it much more likely they'll simply click on the app they want to make a purchase, and lessening the likelihood of the customer visiting another flower shop.

“We thought the first step would be to develop a mobile site, and then get an app up and running,” Mr. Lye said.

“We're still fairly early in the evolution of people ordering flowers from their smartphones.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series continues with a new post every Thursday for the next week. Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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