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Preserving One Web

The W3C hopes that its new tool will help developers build websites that will work well on any device, be it a phone or a video-game console.
November 16, 2007

Increasingly, people connect to the Internet through mobile phones, video-game consoles, or televisions. The problem is that a lot of Internet content isn’t available for all of these devices, and many websites crash when loaded on a mobile device. Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and father of the Internet, worries that this is effectively cutting some people off from the information that is freely shared on the Internet. Speaking at the Mobile Internet World conference in Boston earlier this week, Berners-Lee said that the W3C is working on defining a set of standards that developers can use to build websites that work with mobile devices, as well as with desktop computers, so that the mobile Web doesn’t break apart from the World Wide Web. This week, the W3C also launched a new tool that developers can use to test their websites for compatibility with mobile devices.

The overarching goal of the initiative, according to Berners-Lee, is to keep content available regardless of the devices available to a person. “I like being able to choose my hardware separately from choosing my software, and separately from choosing my content,” Berners-Lee said at the conference. There needs to be just one Web, he explained, and it needs to work on phones.

Many websites are far from Berners-Lee’s vision. Some developers don’t have websites that work with mobile devices and don’t make mobile versions of their sites, seeing this as an added technical headache. For developers who do want their websites to be available everywhere, a common practice is to build special versions of sites for mobile devices, with pared-down features and, sometimes, content.

In some parts of the world, the mobile phone is the primary way that people access the Internet, and content should be available to those people as much as it is to people using a desktop computer. The system doesn’t work well for those in wealthier nations, either. Users with devices such as the iPhone want to be able to access sites from their mobile device at the full capability that the iPhone has, says Matt Womer, the W3C’s mobile-Web-initiative lead for North America. Users don’t want to see a pared-down site.

On the other hand, Womer notes that mobile-device users shouldn’t be forced to download large images or be redirected to several different pages, since users pay by the kilobyte.

Mobile sites can also be hard to find, because there are no standards for creating domain names. Some sites use the prefix “mobile” instead of “www,” for example, while other sites use the prefix “wap.” Womer says that the result can be confusing for users, who shouldn’t have to know to look for special prefixes. “I think in the end, what’s best for the user is one URL that works everywhere,” he says.

The W3C’s current suggestion for people writing Web pages, Womer says, is to separate information about how to present content from the content itself. The content can be described through hypertext markup language (HTML), the language traditionally used to describe Web pages, while the presentation can be handled with separate style sheets. Womer says that the W3C is collecting information about devices so that developers can tailor the presentation to the capabilities of the hardware.

The W3C’s new tool, called the mobileOK checker, will look over code to see how well it follows the W3C’s guidelines. Womer says that the tool won’t be able to assess everything–some things, such as determining the readability of text against a background color, require human judgment–but it will consider a great deal of variables and provide specific instructions for what needs to be fixed.

“The importance of standards cannot be overestimated,” says Jon von Tetzchner, CEO of Opera Software, who is working with the W3C’s mobile-Web initiative. In addition to making browsers for desktop computers and mobile devices, Opera makes browsers for the Nintendo Wii and other game systems. “To deal with the complexity that is out there, there can only be one Web,” von Tetzchner says.

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