Google, Facebook go back to the future for a better mobile web

Thanks to Google and Facebook, developers now need to design explicitly for the mobile experience, exactly like in the early days of mobile

If you want a quick update on the current state of the mobile web, rewind to the good ol' WAP days of 1999. Although responsive web design has given us a few years of web compatibility between desktop and mobile browsers, today's Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles set up a specialized mobile web experience reminiscent of WAP, as Afilias Technologies engineering lead Ronan Cremin argues.

Is this so bad?

Back in WAP

If you're old enough to remember WAP, you're old enough to want to forget it. Though launched to major fanfare, "the grim reality of [WAP was] four lines of monochrome text and sparse content," Cremin says.

Behind that sad state of affairs, however, was the belief that mobile was different, and the mobile web had to be different, too. Indeed it was: Everything about the mobile phone was underpowered, making it unrealistic to run desktop web content on a mobile browser.

That is, until the iPhone launched in 2007. With a powerful Safari browser and the promise of apps to come, the iPhone heralded massive changes to the wireless business, as Om Malik wrote at the time.

Apps took over for years, with the mobile web relegated to second-tier status, but the situation has started to change. In my conversations with CDOs and CMOs, it's clear that brands are getting smarter about mobile, investing heavily in their mobile web presence as a "top of funnel" experience for most would-be customers and reserving apps to serve their most loyal customers. Indeed, the majority of mobile dollars are going to mobile web, not apps, these days, as Adobe's Mobile Maturity survey uncovers (full disclosure: I'm VP of Mobile at Adobe).

The early dollars in mobile web have gone to responsive web design, with some estimates putting adoption at 80 percent. Responsive web design, however, essentially adapts a desktop experience for mobile devices, despite the fact that consumers increasingly experience the web through mobile rather than desktop browsers.

Marketers have been slow to realize this, but as their mobile sites were overrun by embeddable components (for example, ad trackers), Google and Facebook acted to demand a first-class mobile web experience again: Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles.

Both basically do the same thing: deliver an optimized mobile web experience. Both offer fast page load performance with content tailored for small screens. And both threaten to create a completely separate web, similar to WAP.

Highway to AMP hell

AMP has been the more popular of the two, supported by 10 percent of websites compared to Instant Articles' 2 percent, as Ciprian Borodescu highlights. For some, this means that AMP is hastening the doom of the open web. Cremin disagrees:

Some will fret about splitting the web and say that we have regressed, but on the other hand we now have some really fast mobile sites that reach more devices and lower-end devices than ever before. Could we have done this without AMP or Instant Articles? Yes, of course. But we wouldn't have—and despite swathes of evidence pointing to the importance of page speed—we didn't. Instead we got relentlessly heavier and slower.

Cremin's "could've but didn't" argument is persuasive. Whatever the ideal might be, reality is voting for AMP now, though Google's Progressive Web Apps promise to to offer far more and soon. Progressive Web Apps promise the best of all worlds: The discoverability of the web with the deeper engagement of an app. Couple that with Google preferring them (and likely to push them up in search rankings), and we have a perfect storm for a mobile-optimized web.

Given that more people now access the web on mobile devices than desktops, it's about time the mobile web took precedence. Maybe it's time for the desktop web to play catch-up.