One internet or two?

By October 6, 2006Mobile

This is of course a question about mobile, and whether we should have one web which we look at from all devices or pages dedicated to display on small devices which copy those which we look at from our PCs, in effect creating two internets.

This is a post that has been forming in my mind since the Mobile Monday London event at the beginning of the week – they happen on the first Monday of every month and are well worth it if you have an interest in the mobile web (you may need a Yahoo! account to join the group on this link).  Congrats to Jo Rabin for organising this one.

The one web argument is essentially philosophical in nature.  Its proponents believe the web should be world wide and therefore only one is necessary – access from different devices should be managed by appropriate transformation.  They have on their side the practical point that maintaining two of anything and keeping both current is a pain.

The two web argument says that mobile is sufficiently different – small screen, limited input options, narrow bandwidth, not always on, and high latency, that you will not get decent usability unless you design your websites/applications specifically for that environment.

I’m a one web guy. 

I have been very influenced in my thinking by the QTEK phone I got a month or two back.  The QTEK is a smartphone with a full keyboard and push email.  I can use it to access just about any site although the navigation can be a little clumsy.  This made me realise that the distinction between PC and mobile is a little false.  Screen sizes are large on the desk and run in a more or less smooth continuum through laptops, to notebooks, to palm tops, to tablet PCs, to large smart phones, to small smart phones to mass market phones.   Trying to force these into two groups as implied by having a mobile web doesn’t make sense to me.

The other reason I am a one web guy is that the sites people want to look at on their mobiles are by and large the same as on the PC.  A number of people at MoMo this week cited studies to that effect and it rings true for me.  One of the reasons I like the QTEK so much is that I can click through links in emails and look at sites people want to show me (doing much with them is usually too hard, but most times I am just being directed towards a piece of content).  If there were a small subsection of sites that had extremely high mobile usage then there might be a case for building them differently (maybe with a .mobi URL) but I don’t see that happening much.

I am generalising here and there will be niche exceptions but I think I think what I am saying is directionally correct.  Email is a one off case which receives special treatment because of its high volume.  It even has dedicated devices.  I should also say that I am taking for granted all the difficult work that Volantis and others do in optimising sites for the myriad of devices we all use.

The reason all this interests me is that it is important in understanding where the opportunities will come in mobile.

If I am right on the one web point then that says to me that mobile isn’t a separate category for lots of applications.  So thinking about buidling mobile social networks or mobile dating sites is looking at things from the wrong perspective.  The interesting question becomes how to take MySpace to mobile, or Match.com to mobile.  Betfair is an example of where everyone has understood this intuitively – replicating the whole operation on mobile would never work because it would never get to critical mass – but mobile extensions are a great way to improve the service.  Check out their site for mobile.

This argument becomes stronger as mobile traffic is increasingly carried over IP, either via handset clients using the GPRS channel or Wifi for calls or texting (check out Hotxt), or in the network itself (our portfolio company Empower is doing some cool stuff here).

As I think about it more I realise this argument has profound consequences for much of the mobile internet value chain.  If we get to a one web world will the operator portals be there slugging it out with Yahoo! and Google?  I doubt it.

Opportunities for entrepreneurs and VCs will come (or have come) at the infrastructure level, like Volantis and tools to take apps like Betfair mobile.  Beyond that we need to look for things that are truly different on mobile – not different just because of screen size etc.  Location based services/local search is a good example.  Advertising might be another – different messages will be appropriate to people on the move and the screen size point is significant here because the advertising is secondary to the main page people are looking at and there simply won’t be enough space for it (see Google strips out ads when it optimises for mobile).