There’s no simpler way to put it. The way we use the Internet is changing, and it’s changing quickly. Let me start off by throwing some statistics at you (courtesy of @jonathanstark):
- 25% of US mobile users almost never access the internet via desktop or laptop computers.
- The growth rate of mobile traffic is expected to increase tenfold over the next five years.
- There will be 5 billion mobile broadband subscribers by the year 2016.
Here’s another staggering statistic for you: 76% of all internet traffic out of Africa comes from mobile phones. There is a very large percentage of the continent that doesn’t have electricity, or running water, but you can bet they’ve got Facebook. The technological revolution in Africa is going to skip the computer entirely.
As designers and developers, it’s up to us to shape the web, but if we don’t get on board with the change, we’ll get left behind. Even worse, the Internet will become a less friendly, less accessible place.
Changes in how we use the web require a change in thinking about how we construct the web.
Here’s another point to consider: given the rapid growth rate of mobile devices, how long will it be before device APIs currently available only to native applications become part of the standards by which we design and build web sites? We’re already beginning to see this with geo-location services. How many more years will it be before we, as web developers, have access to the camera, the gyroscope, the light sensor, the accelerometer?
If I were guessing, I’d say we’ll see at least some these by 2016, as well.
So what do we do?
Clearly the mobile web is growing fast, but where do you make the switch? What’s the breaking point, and how do you build an accessible, responsive Internet when device and platform fragmentation is greater than ever?
There answer is to start now, stay lean, stay flexible, and adopt a new approach. In short:
- Start with Content
- Build for Mobile First
- Develop your apps and sites around an API
- Accessibility is Key
Let’s take a look at these…
1. Start with Content
It doesn’t matter how your site looks or functions, if you don’t know what it’s saying. Clearly defining your content before beginning development allows you to more easily build cross-platform, cross-device ways to create, view, and interact with that content. It’s like having a road map. It’s the precursor to planning your user experience. Get your content organized, and the UX often defines itself.
2. Build for Mobile First
With mobile web usage on the rise, it’s only wise to start with the small screen and work your way to the larger ones. Media queries and meta tags largely ignored by desktop browsers make it easy to create responsive layouts that adapt to mobile devices, and it’s far easier to start small and go bigger than it is to try and build in reverse. Mobile first also often means better fall-backs for old browsers and old technology, and an overall cleaner layout in general.
3. Develop your apps and sites around an API
This is still a somewhat uncommon approach to web development (though it is certainly gaining in popularity among web app developers), but for the ultimate freedom and flexibility, start with an API and then build your web site or client on top of this.
Think of it as one more step in separation beyond the MVC pattern. Your API doesn’t present anything, not even so much as a paragraph tag. It just accepts data and spits data out in return, but if you build a rock-solid REST API, your client can be anything.
Forget just serving up HTML pages. Do you want to access your content from the command line, over instant messenger, via e-mail, SMS, or even voice? Yeah, API-centric development will let you do that without having to redefine the application at each step. Your client determines the terms and scope of interaction, while the API does all of the heavy lifting on the data.
4. Accessibility is Key
Point four is the reason we do one, two, and three. Accessibility no longer just means a screen reader, or building a site for someone with low vision. It also means agile language translation, low-tech devices, slow-speed connections, voice activation, and touch gestures.
The changing web isn’t about the growth in mobile access. It’s about the growth in people. Mobile is a means to an end, and while the way we deliver the web may be changing, it also affords us an incredible opportunity to reshape and rethink the tools we use to deliver content. With mobile as the catalyst, we can now step back and look at how we can adapt, in this new landscape, to building applications and web sites that are friendlier, easier to use, and more available to all users.