II. Understanding the Mobile Ecosystem


This section reviews various components that make up the mobile ecosystem -- phones, mobile network components, medium types, and challenges.  Having a good understanding of how the mobile world works is essential to developing quality sites for clients and advocates.


The Mobile Ecosystem - Phones

Although the mobile ecosystem consists of many different components, probably the most recognizable and important one is the mobile phone. All phones sold in the US today fall into one of three categories: feature phones, smartphones, or touchphones. 

  • Feature Phones: The vast majority of cell phone users in the US have feature phones. These are the basic flip phones that come free or at a low-cost with carrier contracts and pre-paid plans. Features phones get their name from the various features that come with the devices. These phones generally have camera, a handful of applications, and rudimentary web browsers. Prior to feature phones, cell phones only made calls and sent and received text messages.  
  • Smartphones:  They makeup a much smaller portion of the US market than feature phones, but smartphones are also very popular devices, especially among attorneys. The most recognizable smartphone is the Blackberry. In addition to all the capabilities of feature phones, smartphones typically run more applications and an operating system, have a larger screen size, and utilize a QWERTY keyboard input (standard keyboard format).
  • Touchphones: Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, the fastest growing category of phones in the US market have been touch phones. Touchphones can be thought of as the next generation of smartphones - they have larger screens, more robust web browsers, and more powerful applications. Touchphone users are also the mobile web’s power users. A recent UK study showed that 93% of iPhone owners use their device to access news and information on the mobile web.
  • Other mobile devices - iPads & tablets are also entering the mobile space and should be watched as their market share increases, especially considering that higher end models have built-in wifi capabilities.

The Mobile Ecosystem: Carriers, Networks, Platforms, and Operating Systems

The mobile landscape consists of several other components besides phones. These include carriers, networks, platforms, and operating systems. Again, a basic understanding of all these is helpful before beginning a mobile web project.

  • Carriers: Carriers (sometimes called operators) provide mobile service to customers. Customers typically sign up for a contract or prepaid plan.
  • Networks: Carriers provide mobile service over a network of cellular towers. Networks are commonly differentiated by generation. Right now, most users browse the mobile web on third generation (3G) technology. The growth of 3G and the rise of fourth generation (4G) technology is improving mobile browsing significantly.
  • Platforms: Platforms are the programming frameworks upon which all software for devices are developed. The most ubiquitous platform in mobile right now is Java ME. Blackberr, iPhone, and Android each run their own proprietary platforms.
  • Operating Systems: Just like other computer devices, many phones now run some type of operating system. Going forward, many commentators believe that the majority of phones will use Apple's iPhone OS X, RIM's Blackberry OS or Android. Current market trends show Blackberry on the decline and Android and iPhone on the rise.

Right now, there is a great deal of confusion and fragmentation surrounding many of these mobile web components. Thankfully, a major advantage of the the mobile web is its interoperability. An effective mobile website will reach a significant portion of mobile users, regardless of their carrier, network, platform or operating system.

The Mobile Ecosystem - Mobile Application Medium Types

There are several mediums through which mobile devices can deliver information and content to users. In Mobile Design and Development (O'Reilly Media, 2009), Brian Fling identifies six different mobile medium types: SMS, mobile websites, mobile web widgets, mobile web applications, native applications, and games.

Although this guide focuses on the mobile web, programs should also be familiar with each of the following options:

  • Short Message Service (SMS) Most phone users probably know SMS as "texting" - sending and receiving short messages through through mobile phones. With SMS, a user can submit a single keyword to a five-digit code and then receive helpful information in return. Although SMS seems like it a useful tool for the legal aid community, there are some major limitations to the medium. SMS return messages are limited to 160 characters, so programs could only provide a limited amount of information to users. In addition, SMS can be a pricey service, both for message recipients and providers. 
  • Mobile Web Applications are another medium available to developers. As their name suggests, mobile web applications provide a more application-like experience through users' mobile web browsers. Most of us are probably familiar with desktop web applications like GMail, Basecamp, and Facebook. Developers are now applying the same ideas behind these applications -- using XHTML, CSS, and Javascript to build robust web-based apps -- in the mobile context.
  • Native Mobile Applications: Mobile web applications shouldn't be confused with native mobile applications. Native applications are built for specific devices, such as the iPhone or Android handsets. These applications have better exposure to the application's specific hardware and software, so they can more easily tap into the majority of devices features, including cameras and location systems. Native apps also work on and offline, and can pull needed data from the web quickly. The downside to native applications is that they only work on the devices for which they were designed. ILAO is currently taking the lead with legal aid app development, having developed and launched several apps for both iOS and Android.



The Mobile Ecosystem - Challenges

Although mobile web technology is improving, developing robust user experiences on phones remains a serious challenge. This sub-section explores the hurdles of developing in the mobile environment, and offers basic workarounds for site builders. (The technical details for many of the workarounds discussed here are laid out in greater detail later in the guide.)Most of the major mobile challenges revolve around usability. Usability refers to the ease with which users can interact with a web interface and accomplish specific tasks on a site. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen noted in a recent Albertbox report, currently "it's neither easy nor pleasant to use the web on mobile devices." Several limitations exist in the mobile environment, Nielsen notes, that lead to a less than ideal user experience. These include small screens, awkward device inputs, flaky internet connections, and poorly designed sites.Below we highlight a few of these limitations and provide some practical solutions: 
  • Small Screens: The most significant limitation in phones is small screen size. Feature phones, which still make up the vast majority of the market, typically have a screen that's no larger than 2 inches, measured diagonally. Even the screen on the iPod is only 3.5 inches  - considerably smaller than the average screen size for a netbook (10 in) or laptop (15 in). As Nielson notes, "small screens mean fewer visible options" are available on mobile displays. Small screens also leave little room for the types of navigation menus to which desktop users have become accustomed, such as top and left marginal navigation displays.Solutions: To help improve legibility of sites on phones screens, developers should
    • Use fonts that are designed for easy reading on a screen, such as Verdana.
    • Keep margins and padding to a minimum to use all of the screen.
    • Use a large enough font size to allow users to be able to comfortably read the content.
    • Use short paragraphs: large paragraphs of text might work fine on a full site, but on a mobile device it helps to use more white space and keep paragraphs smaller. Testing of the site is needed to decide the right amount of white space versus the amount of scrolling required.
  • Awkward Inputs: For users accustomed to working with a full keyboard and mouse, the mobile web is quite an adjustment. Scrolling through a webpage with phone buttons or a tiny trackball makes almost any task on the site more difficult. Even touch screens, which were developed to address the limitations of previous input devices, are less precise than a desktop mouse. Typing on mobile devices presents another major usability hurdle, especially when phones only have numeric keypads.Solutions:  Developers should limit the need to use input devices on sites.
    • Simplify pages so that users do not have too many link options and make it clear to which links users are navigating.
    • Sort out links by order of popularity - this ensures that most users won't have to scroll through many pages to reach their destination.
    • Website forms should almost never be used on mobile sites, especially if a site's target audience is feature phone users. Instead of making users fill out a form or send an email, developers should utilize phone links that initiate a call to the legal aid office directly through the mobile device. 
  • Download Delays: Although web connections on mobile devices are improving, much of the current mobile network infrastructure was not built to support robust web usage. Mobile websites generally load much much slower than sites being delivered through home or office wire-line broadband connections. Connections are also more likely to drop as a page is downloading.Solutions:  To account for slow connections, developers should create lightweight sites that load quickly. That means only small images and relatively small portions of text of each page. The PTLA mobile site does an especially good job of keeping pages light to ensure fast load time. Programs that model their pages off the the PTLA project can ensure relatively quick load times for users.
Nielson also says that there are two major guidelines that any mobile web developer needs to follow when creating a mobile website:
  1. Design a seperate mobile website
  2. Have a clear, explicit link from the full site to the mobile site and vice versa.