Nowadays, the mobile web’s uses have grown by the dozen. From downloading wallpapers or ringtones to search information and stay abreast with the world, keep track of match scores, stay in touch with friends, the list of uses seem to be endless. Mobile web can even fuel protests and revolutions. However, this was not always the case. The mobile web has somewhat humble beginnings.
The early days: A misstep
Today people use social networking, search, location based services, and more through mobile web. However, there was a time when none of that was practically possible, because mobile phones simply were too underpowered and incapable to display normal web pages properly. In addition, mobile browsers which could make this possible did not exist.
However, the biggest problem was the direction taken to implement the web on mobiles. A technology called WML (Wireless Markup Language) was proposed, which was vastly different from HTML (the language we use to display web pages normally). This meant creating a different web, just for mobiles. The WML sites mostly functioned as stripped down versions of the html sites, with poorer graphics, and a very barebones UI.
Most content developers did not take the effort to implement a separate version of their site in a different technology just for mobiles, and the ones who did quickly found out that most users did not like it and wanted to experience the same kind of web pages they viewed on their desktops. Thus, WML proved to be a failure for the mobile web, and we needed to start again, this time in a more familiar direction.
Going back to the start
After the failure of WML, people started to look into bringing normal HTML into mobile devices. This was aided by fact that mobiles had started to become a bit more powerful now, and development of mobile browsers was happening at a much aggressive pace. Opera Mini started out as a pilot project in 2005, and launched publicly in early 2006. In 2007, the iPhone was released and showed just how much deep integration the world wide web could have with mobile phones. Since then, there has been no looking back.
The era of growth
There are number of factors behind the explosive growth of the mobile web in recent years. Some of that has to do with the increasing ubiquity of the World Wide Web in general, from everything like leisure and social networking to job hunting and email. It has become an essential part of many lives around the world. Another equally important factor is the ubiquity of mobile phones themselves. It has quickly become quite literally the most prevalent computing device of all time.
The mobile web is the marriage of these increasingly important and extremely ubiquitous technologies. Other very important factors included the increased capability of mobile phones, with more powerful processors and better memory giving more complex applications like mobile web browsers the ability to run better and lastly, mobile web browsers themselves became more and more capable over time.
Browsers such as Opera Mini were designed to run on the lowest as well as the highest performing mobiles in the market, thereby increasing the reach of the mobile web. All of these factors ushered in a new era of growth for the mobile web and it will continue for the next few years to come.
Cisco reports that global mobile data traffic increased by 2.6 percent in 2010, nearly tripling for the third year in a row. Furthermore it states that global mobile data traffic will increase 26-fold between 2010 and 2015 by which point it will reach 6.3 exabytes.These are staggering numbers, but the mobile web has indeed being growing at a staggering pace.
Our own usage figures for Opera Mini (the world’s most popular web browser for mobiles) confirms this tremendous growth in usage and uptake for the mobile web.
According to Opera’s “State of the Mobile Web Reports”, data consumed through Opera Mini servers has increased by 526% since April 2009. Total monthly page views have increased by 587% since that period. Opera Mini users viewed over 59.7 billion pages in March 2011 and Opera Mini users generated over 946 million MB of data for operators worldwide. Globally, Opera Mini surpassed a milestone by crossing 100 million users mark. In march 2011, Opera Mini has 102.4 active monthly users. Since March 2010, the number of unique users has increased 85.4%.
However, these are not the only figures to go by for tracking the mobile web growth. Google reports that the number of YouTube videos delivered to mobile devices tripled in 2010, reaching 200 million video views per day. Google also reported India having around 40 million mobile internet users. This is quite a feat coming from a country which is just a decade ago, barely had a mobile industry of value. On a global level, usage is increasing too, with a Morgan Stanley report indicating that the number of mobile internet users will outnumber desktop internet users globally in just five years time.
What are people doing on the mobile web?
However, the next question which arises is: What’s going on in the mobile web? What are people doing there and what kind of mobile devices are they using?Who are they?In some ways, the answer is deceptively straight-forward: They are doing the same things that they do on the desktop web. With modern mobile browsers capable of displaying web pages quite similar as in a normal desktop browser, people nowadays are accessing their favorite sites all the time, irrespective of the device being used.
However, Opera has again some interesting data to share using its State of the Mobile Web reports. One of the things to look at is the countries most active on the mobile web.
With regards to Opera Mini, the countries using it the most were Russia, followed by Indonesia and then India. In fact, in the top ten list of countries using Opera Mini, most are developing countries with the Russia and United States the only exception.This means that developing counties are showing a lot more enthusiasm for the mobile web than most had previously assumed. Global trends for usage of sites point out to increased usage of search engines and social networking sites.
The average Opera Mini users in India views around 442 pages per month and transfers around 7MB of data. India has grown in unique users by 231.9% since March last year. The top sites include Google, Facebook and Youtube. Other sites in the top 10 used by Indians include other social networking sites like Orkut, Wikipedia, Zedge.net and getjar.com.
The presence of such sites point to the fact that Indians use mobile web more for leisure and entertainment rather than for work or shopping related activities. This trend is true for most other countries as well.
Another key activity trend is use of mobile web in times of emergencies or crisis. Usually in these situations, using mobile web is more apt. We have seen people use the mobile web to stay in touch with friends and relatives, and keep abreast of the latest news in times of crisis. Two recent examples include the political revolution in Egypt and the earthquake crisis in Japan.
In Egypt, an increased usage of social networking sites, especially facebook and twitter was noticed. Opera Mini servers received the biggest spike in facebook usage from Egyptian users when Hosni Mubarak resigned. One of the Egyptian protestors said, “The key success for the revolution was the way we connected, via Facebook and other social media via Internet, to mobile phones. It was a revolution based on communication.”
In case of Japan earthquake Opera Mini servers detected an increased usage of twitter as well as various meteorological sites from Japanese users. People were checking details about the earthquake as well as informing friends and relatives about their current situation using the mobile web. In the following days we observed an increased usage of news sites by Japanese users, along with an increased traffic to the website of TEPCO, the company behind the nuclear reactor in crisis.
This proves that in terms of crisis and national emergency, usage of mobile web to connect, gather information, often in real time is much higher.
What is next for the mobile web?
Quite simply put - Video. Youtube is already the third most popular site visited by Opera Mini users in India. According to Cisco, two-thirds of the world's mobile data traffic will be video by 2015. With the emergence of 3G in India and other countries, viewing video clips using the mobile phone will not be something extraordinary in the next few years.Online video hosting sites, as well as social media sites which allow users to easily share videos with friends will benefit the most.
Video is not the only thing to watch out for in the future. Till now, phones and mobile web browsers have been increasing in capability. But the technology behind the sites just increased in capability only once when people shifted from WML to HTML.
HTML5 and related technologies like CSS3 etc will allow developers to create better and more adaptable web technologies which utilize the inbuilt capabilities of the device in a better degree. Now developers will be able to create applications for the mobile web which can serve video in a more efficient manner, have programmable graphics, device adaptive user interfaces which look much better and could even work offline.
Modern mobile browsers for smartphones are also providing support for geolocation, which opens up possibilities for various locations based services for mobile web developers.
The technologies for all of these are very new and are being integrated into the newest versions of mobile web browsers. The products which take first mover advantage of these technologies will likely have an edge over other competing products. Developers will find support for these technologies very encouraging in order to create the next level of great mobile web experiences.
Besides technologies driving mobile web experiences, the devices used to access the mobile web are changing too. Till recently, we assumed the mobile web to be all about cell phones. However, today we are seeing increased usage by small netbooks as well as tablets like the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Portable media players like mp3 players and portable gaming consoles are now generating considerable usage. The mobile web is not just about mobile phones anymore. Various other devices have joined this arena too, and more will do so in the coming future.
The mobile web has come a long way since its humble beginnings more than decade a ago. Its usage is increasing massively all over the world, and especially in developing countries which do not have as much connectivity with traditional desktop internet. Moreover, as the quality and quantity of applications, as well as the usage of mobiles phones itself (especially in developing economies) increase, it’s prominence in the lives of mobile users is set to grow further.