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Four things to consider before taking the mobile leap for web apps

Mobile, as no doubt you've heard, is big – so big that Apple posted $46.3-billion in revenues in its last quarter alone, mostly on the backs of iPhones and iPads. That's bigger than the GDP of Guatemala, if anyone's keeping track.

So it's a puzzle that more companies haven't taken the time to create mobile versions of their websites, which cater both to mobile users' smaller screens and their altered priorities while on the go.

In part, blame the craze for downloadable apps. But the open Web is coming back to the fore as a platform.

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"Apps are hot; everyone wants an app," says Owen Prior, a project manager at Relentless Technology, a Vancouver-based Web design and marketing firm. "But really, it's not the most flexible way to build your mobile website."

But going mobile isn't as simple as shrinking your existing homepage. Here are four things to consider before taking the leap:

1. Start with analytics

What do people on the go want out of your website? As it turns out, your Web host already knows the answer.

Web servers keep track of what kinds of devices people use to visit your site. Typically, they do this by noticing the kind of Web browser they're using. This means that the server also knows which devices are being used to visit which pages.

So when you're looking to create a mobile-optimized version of your current website, start by checking to see which pages are being frequented by users checking in from iPhones, BlackBerrys and Android devices. You'll probably find that they're visiting some pages more than others.

2. Get the bare essentials out front

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The stories that analytics tell about mobile viewing patterns will vary from site to site. But Web designers say some patterns are constant. Users surfing from a desktop might have general questions about a company, and could be willing to surf about.

"The mobile visitor has a different goal in mind," Mr. Prior says. "They want the address and phone number. Then, they're gone."

Try to get as much of the information that mobile browsers look for onto your mobile site's front page – especially that phone number, which smartphones can hotlink to for one-touch dialling.

After the basics, the next thing mobile customers will likely be searching for is product information.

This is where the design task gets more complicated. Merchants will want to decide whether the goal of their mobile site is to act as a tool that will help draw customers into the store and help them shop, or a mobile-commerce application that will enable entire purchases to be made remotely, with the help of shopping cart software.

3. Think devices

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Since a website can tell what kind of device is being used to view it, it can be programmed to tailor itself accordingly. Some outfits serve up versions of their websites specially designed for iPhones, with iPhone-like menus, and iPads ,with big graphics that can be swiped.

But it often makes more sense to make sure a single design works across all mobile devices of a given category (phones, say, or tablets). This approach requires less work to maintain, and lets your design stay true to your company's brand, not the gadget's.

"We'll try to keep the branding consistent across all the separate devices," says Joel Sinclair, a partner at Media Dog, a Calgary-based Web design and development studio. "We'll try to develop one website for all the devices if we can."

And the bigger screens, like iPads and PlayBooks? They're usually well-suited to be directed to regular Web homepages.

4. Remember the Flash equation

Apple's mobile devices, the iPads and iPhones, famously eschewed Adobe's Flash animation plug-in, which many websites use to stream online video and provide a bit of ,well, flash.

Apple doesn't have the same stranglehold on the mobile market it did in years past, but it still has plenty of clout. Last November, Adobe announced it would stop developing Flash for mobile browsers, so even though Android and PlayBook users can see Flash websites today, the future looks cloudy.

Many of the capabilities that people looked to the Flash plug-in to provide have been taken up by new technologies built into Flash-free Web browsers (these are usually lumped under the moniker "HTML5"). These include animated visual effects and streaming video.

For now, though, there are still complications. The industry is still coming to grips with these new standards. Streaming a video without Flash isn't as simple as throwing it on YouTube; special hosting arrangements need to be made with your service provider.

It's also worth noting that many small businesses still request desktop websites whose graphic design uses Flash, whethert for aesthetics or navigation.

"We don't push a lot of clients there, but a lot of clients still request it," Mr. Sinclair says.

This isn't always the best idea, even if it's a website meant for desktops. If devices like iPads and PlayBooks, with seven- or nine-inch screens load those same desktop websites, then without Flash, those sites won't look as they should – on millions upon millions of gadgets.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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