Why the mobile web must mirror the desktop

The web on mobile phones

"We're touring in China at the moment, which has got 73 million people connected to the internet without a laptop or desktop. They only use their phone. And people hate it when they get a different experience on a different platform, so they expect the desktop to be the same as the phones they've been using. But, since their initial exposure to the web has been with the phone, why would they even want to go and buy a big desktop beast? It's happened in South East Asia and South Africa – because their economies are developing differently, they've bypassed the desktop and the laptop."

In fact, Africa's mobile industry is expanding at nearly double the global rate. It's a vital market for Opera, whose mission it is to provide one web for all. Opera Mini, now also available for the Android platform, boasts 21 million users worldwide and has turned into the most popular mobile browser around. In October, page views through Opera Mini skyrocketed to five billion – an increase of more than 450 per cent over the year. And while Opera's global usage share on desktops is estimated at just 0.75 per cent (behind IE, Firefox and Safari), it's more like 18-20 per cent in Russia and the Ukraine. Versions of the browser are also available for the Nintendo DS and Wii.

Opera was one of the first browsers to support CSS. Håkon Wium Lie, who suggested the concept, is chief technology officer at Opera, and many employees are on W3C committees for various interest groups. Recently. Opera's MAMA search engine, which analyses the structure of web pages to get an idea of what people are up to, found that only 4.13 per cent of more than three million sites pass W3C validation.

Opera has also released a Web Standards Curriculum. "It's a 50-module course that's either for self study or for teachers to use," Bruce explains. "We released it under Creative Commons, so anybody can use and adapt it. It's written by some big names, including Roger Johansson from 456 Berea Street, and Christian Heilmann and Tom Hughes-Croucher from Yahoo. A lot of these people collaborated because companies told us that they were getting in developers who didn't know standards, yet the business requires it. We figure that if we're going to teach people in universities and have this self-study course, ultimately it will shape the future of the web."

Standards battle not won yet

Bruce is confident that history is marching towards standardisation, but the battle hasn't been won yet. "Many have got the message, but there are a heck of a lot of people that my friend Stuart Langridge calls 'dark matter developers'. We don't know how to talk to them. We don't know where they are. They don't come to conferences and they don't read books. They turn up, test in IE and go home at five. At Opera we're realising that if you can talk to these people when they're still learning then they don't have to unlearn bad habits later on. Also, they'll evangelise, or at least spread the word when they go into companies and start leading teams."

But it's not only developers that need educating. "The British government recently published a consultation paper in which they said government web masters only really needed to test in a couple of browsers and could ignore the smaller marketshare ones. This is 2008, not 1998! I protested and was given the task of writing the formal Opera response."

When Bruce blogged about it on the Web Standards Project site, the civil servant responsible for the draft browser guidelines posted a comment saying that around 400 people had already complained.

So Bruce's crusade is far from over, but he vows not to give up. He simply enjoys evangelising about web standards, introducing the concept to new people. Then there's the personal interest, of course. "One day, if I find myself unable to see or use my hands, I'll be coming at those people whose websites I won't be able to use."


First published in .net magazine, issue 185