I’ve just read Jacob Nielsen’s latest report, Mobile Web 2009 = Desktop Web 1998, on his findings on the usability of mobile browsing:

Mobile phone users struggle mightily to use websites, even on high-end devices. To solve the problems, websites should provide special mobile versions.

While his findings may be in tune with many of the experiences we feel when browsing the web on mobile phones I couldn’t disagree with him more on his proposed solution of building a separate .mobi site. To me this just extends the problems of walled gardens for users and leads developers down the road of additional and unnecessary work.

My colleague Bruce Lawson has gone into this in some depth in his post Is mobile development compatible with one web and, like him, I’m firmly in the “one web” camp. It’s still relatively early days for mobile browsing but there has been renewed interest over the last year or so what with better handsets, better browsers and better incentives with the explosion of social networking as the communication channel of choice for many. All this is making mobile browsing much more mainstream as we want to connect, update and locate people and information while on the move.

Neilson seems to have missed the point that we have standards and guidelines to help web developers achieve one web and that if we start promoting separate mobile sites now we could be left with the same mess and confusion that text only versions of websites left us with only just a few years ago.

I work at Opera and our users have often complained when their favorite sites have forced them onto a mobile optimised site. The message here is clear – people want choice and you can’t presume to know what is best for them. Yes, there are times when a stripped down version of a site may be preferred or widgets for your favorite social networking sites but this doesn’t mean going down the route of two versions.

The Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) from the W3C have a significant overlap with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), so much so in fact that they are working on a document that shows the relationship between MWBP and WCAG. We also have media queries which allow you to deliver CSS appropriate to the screen size of your device. You can also offer your users preferences for sites that they log into to they can choose what content they see. Browsers such as Opera Mini and Mobile also offer zooming, one column rendering and the ability to switch off images.

When I started this blog I knew that I didn’t want to just write about accessibility. For me accessibility is an integral part of a larger whole which is universal access regardless of what device you are using, where you are using it and what language you speak. This may be a tall order but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be the goal. Nielsen is right in that the mobile web in 2009 is very similar to the desktop web in 1998 in terms of user experience, but that doesn’t mean we have to go and make the same mistakes again. Let’s not go down the route of multiple versions and walled gardens.

Update 16 April, 2012

Fast forward three years from when I originally wrote this post and we now have a name for the above: responsive design. Building one website with one code base that responds to the screen size and orientation of the device. For all the reasons outlined above this approach makes good sense for the user and site owner alike. Nielson still doesn’t think so however.

Last week Neilson released a report, Mobile vs. Full site, in which he reiterated:

Build a separate mobile-optimized site (or mobile site) if you can afford it.

Thankfully he has been challenged over this by Josh Clarke in .Net Magazine: Neilson is wrong on mobile. I’m relieved to see this being discussed again and kicking off debate on Twitter as I for one find Neilson approach extremely damaging to the modern web.

For more on this story see .Net’s original article Designers respond to Nielson on mobile and Nielson’s response.