Skip to Content

Larry Page’s Oddly Backward Comments on Mobile

Google’s CEO says we shouldn’t design for mobile devices. Say what now?
January 24, 2013

It was an offhanded, qualified remark made in passing during Google’s latest earnings call, but Larry Page’s comments on mobile design had all the grace of a gong being hit. “I’d almost say that we shouldn’t be designing for mobile,” he said, as reported by Quartz. “The kind of mobile phones we have now, the state of the art, are a little bit beyond, and those experiences [i.e., full websites] should work on those devices as well.”

Really? Now that Android phablets are a fad, mobile design is irrelevant since we can just stuff desktop websites onto waffle-sized screens? I can’t believe Page is really that dumb–this is the guy who led a company-wide overhaul of Google’s products in favor of a more design-savvy direction

What Page’s comments about mobile (unintentionally) illustrate is not that mobile design doesn’t matter, but that it matters now more than ever, as the very term “mobile device” spreads ever thinner over a proliferation of different devices and form factors. According to mobile-design expert Luke Wroblewski, we’ve only just barely begun to figure out what UI designs and user experiences make sense for iPhone-sized screens–a five-year-old device–much less tablets, phablets, wearables, and the rest. “Most people aren’t even making mobile stuff yet,” he told me. “ ‘Shoving my thing on the smaller screen’– that’s where the whole tech industry is. After four years of mobile apps, I’m only now starting to see examples of native mobile experiences with no laptop-based GUI artifacts.”

The “experiences” that Page casually mentioned were all designed for a decades-old hardware use case–accessing the web through a keyboard-and-mouse-driven, desktop-based device–that is increasingly on the wane. He’s right that most mobile sites are still frustrating to use. That’s because new mobile devices get invented faster than we can figure out how people actually tend to use them, and then design effective experiences around those uses. But the solution isn’t to continue “shoving” the old, pre-mobile web onto our handheld devices–or, as Page’s remark implies, simply keep making our mobile screens bigger and bigger to accommodate “experiences” that were originally designed for desktop computers. 

Responsive design–Page’s catch-all solution to supposedly stand in for mobile design–can be a trap, too. That trendy term doesn’t just mean “rearranging your legacy desktop site to fit better on a Nexus 4.” Every new mobile form factor drives subtle but significant differences in how people use the device. Pinching or tapping to zoom a “full” website on your smartphone is an elegant solution to the problem that few websites are mobile-native experiences, but an even better solution would be to design those websites so that they’re mobile-native in the first place. Not crippled or stunted versions of the “real” website, mind you. Just rethought, so that information and services are presented in ways that make more sense for a mobile context. (I don’t care how enormous your phablet is; interacting with the desktop version of NYTimes.com on a mobile browser is just unwieldy.)

What Page really means when he says “we shouldn’t be designing for mobile” is that we shouldn’t be designing poorly for mobile. But as with anything else, practice makes perfect. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

masked travellers at Heathrow airport
masked travellers at Heathrow airport

We still don’t know enough about the omicron variant to panic

The variant has caused alarm and immediate border shutdowns—but we still don't know how it will respond to vaccines.

This new startup has built a record-breaking 256-qubit quantum computer

QuEra Computing, launched by physicists at Harvard and MIT, is trying a different quantum approach to tackle impossibly hard computational tasks.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.