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Accessing the mobile web myth or reality

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Accessing the mobile web myth or reality

     Accessing the mobile web: myth or reality?

Accessing the mobile web: myth or reality?

Henny Swan

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Becta | Accessing the mobile web: myth or reality?

    About the author

    Henny Swan is a Web Evangelist for

    Opera, advocating web standards and

    the open web, with a specialism in both

    web and browser accessibility as well as

    the mobile web.

    Henny takes an interest in where

    accessibility standards overlap with

    mobile best practice and in particular,

    internationalisation. She is a member of

    the Web Accessibility Initiative User

    Agent Accessibility Working Group (UAAG) [http://www.w3.org/WAI/UA/] and Co-Lead of the Web Standards Project (WaSP) International Liaison Working Group (ILG) [http://www.webstandards.org/].

    A major area of interest for Henny is web standards in general and how

    internationalisation and mobile access complement web accessibility.

    Having started out working for a search engine in China in the late 90s, she then

    went to work for UK charity RNIB as a Senior Web Accessibility Consultant. She

    speaks at various international conferences and contributes to the Opera Developer

    Network and blog as well as her own blog (iheni), which looks at accessibility,

    internationalisation and mobile access.

    Outside work, Henny can be found kick-boxing, entertaining and cooking Chinese

    food, as well as hanging out in Second Life.

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    Contents

    Introduction .............................................................................................................. 4 Leaving no user behind ........................................................................................... 5 Mobile browser wars? ............................................................................................. 8 Mobile browser wars? ............................................................................................. 8 Safeguarding usability and accessibility ............................................................... 9 Mobile web versus full web ................................................................................... 10 Progressive enhancement ..................................................................................... 10 Media types and media queries ............................................................................ 12 HTML5 ..................................................................................................................... 13 Accessible websites help mobile optimisation ................................................... 14 The way of the widget ............................................................................................ 15 Conclusion .............................................................................................................. 16 Glossary .................................................................................................................. 18

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Becta | Accessing the mobile web: myth or reality?

Introduction

After a few false starts, mobile browsing has finally gone mainstream. No longer is it

    the domain of the geek or the deep-pocketed business man or woman, it is now

    becoming more integral to how we access the web today.

    The mobile web has been knocking on our doors for years but has never quite been

    attractive, or usable enough, to really take off. What has changed is the demise of 1WAP and the advent of better mobile devices (smaller, cheaper, faster, sleeker),

    social networking (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.) and cheaper mobile browsing

    packages. All of these factors have converged to make mobile browsing a practical

    alternative.

    However, while demand for the mobile web is growing, mobile web content is yet to

    mature, with many problems of usability and accessibility that are reminiscent of

    desktop web content ten years ago. Added to this are the specific problems

    associated with mobile browsing such as size of screen display (viewport), handset

    capability context (being outside, in noisy places, differing light, time restricted), and 2technology support (lack of JavaScript, Flash, CSS cascading stylesheets and so

    on).

While many of these issues are bad for the evolution of the mobile web in general,

    they are a very real problem for disabled and older users in particular. Given that we

    not only socialise but also work online using mobile devices and are becoming

    increasingly reliant on information on the move, the danger of leaving a significant

    proportion of people behind is a grave one indeed.

This article highlights a few of the problems with mobile access today, considers

    who is affected by them and looks at how we can overcome these issues by drawing

    on lessons learnt from desktop technology and how the evolution of accessible web

    content there can influence the evolution of accessible web content for mobile

    devices.

     1 See Glossary at the end of the article 2 Comparison of stylesheet languages

    [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_stylesheet_languages]

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    Becta | Accessing the mobile web: myth or reality? Leaving no user behind

    “77 per cent of 65-74-year-olds use a mobile, whereas only 36 per cent use the internet." Andrew Harrop, Age Concern

    When developing content it is all too easy to design and build with „average‟ users in mind, perhaps much like ourselves, forgetting that many don't fit neatly into the

    „average‟ user category.

According to the Disability Rights Commission, there are 8.6 million registered 3disabled people in the UK 14 per cent of the population. In addition, the

    Government estimates there are 12 million people aged 60 or over 21 per cent of

    the UK population who may also struggle online. As Robin Christopherson of 4AbilityNet says:

    In the UK there are around 1.6 million registered blind people, 1.5 million with

    cognitive difficulties, six million with dyslexia and a further 3.4 million who have some

    problem making use of a standard computer difficult or impossible. In addition there is

    an increasing number of elderly „silver surfers‟ with failing eyesight or arthritis. These

    potential internet users represent a spending power in excess of ?120 billion.

A disabled user could be anyone who has a visual, hearing, cognitive or motor

    impairment, or any combination of these. Typical barriers that people face in using

    technology and mobile devices in particular broadly fall into the following

    categories:

Keyboard access: users can find website navigation that relies on a mouse

    impossible to use if there is only an alphanumeric keypad available.

    Fallback content / Alternative content: some users of assistive technology, such as blind users with screen readers, may find it hard to access content delivered

    using Flash, Canvas or some types of JavaScript. This means that content and/or

    functionality is unavailable. Equally, on a mobile device that does not support Flash

    or JavaScript, mobile users won‟t be able to access content and functionality, so

    alternative content should be used. For example, if a form validates client-side,

    programmers should always add in a server-side validation for those that do not

    have JavaScript enabled.

     3 Quoted in Benefits of an accessible site Part 1 by Web Credible

     [http://www.webcredible.co.uk/user-friendly-resources/web-accessibility/benefits-of-accessible-

    websites-1.shtml] 4 State of the eNation Reports: Disabled people favour accessible sites

     [http://www.abilitynet.org.uk/enation9]

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    Complex content: lengthy text, poorly spaced layout, inconsistent navigation, poorly formed link text, wordy headings and copy can all contribute to making a site less

    readable for many users. Good use of images, colour and layout can often help

    facilitate readability on desktop web pages and is equally or even more relevant

    when it comes to mobile web access.

    Many of the barriers a disabled user encounters on a desktop are also felt by non-

    disabled users on mobile devices. The W3C's Shared Web Experiences: Barriers 5 describes the Common to Mobile Device Users and People with Disabilities

    crossover and how fixing web content for desktop access can help the usability and

    accessibility of mobile web content. Knowing that making your web pages accessible

    for disabled users also helps mobile access can also help when developing a

    business case for your organisation to build in accessibility or mobile support. The

    additional users this can accommodate is not an insignificant number.

Disabled users are therefore not the only group to benefit from good design.

    Combined, disabled and older users account for a significant part of our population,

    roughly 48 per cent (although some belong in both categories). Given we are all

    ageing, this is a market that is more about us than we may realise, especially as life

    expectancy increases.

Many older users come to the web today with little or no experience of the digital

    world and computing, and many of the more experienced have never surfed with a

    mobile device, so facilitating ease of access is crucial. Arguably this will not remain

    the case as years go by and today's standard web users age, but expectations to be

    able to use the web fully will not dwindle with age. It is crucial therefore that we

    safeguard the accessibility of the web from mobile devices for both disabled users

    and the elderly.

    Another significant group of people overlooked are global users. Opera's „State of 6the Mobile Web‟ reports analyse usage of Opera Mini across the globe and provide some crucial insight to mobile browsing habits globally. In developing countries,

    where the infrastructure is poor and access to hardware is scarce, there is evidence

    that reliance on mobile web access is significantly higher as people are more able to

    afford mobile devices than computers which in turn need access to a phone line or

    Wi-Fi and a general infrastructure to support desktop browsing.

     5 http://www.w3.org/WAI/mobile/experiences 6 State of the Mobile Web, October 2009 [http://www.com/smw/2009/10/] and November 2009

    [http://www.opera.com/smw/2009/11/%5D

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    The fact that some people's main, or only, web browsing experience is on mobile

    devices could add weight to the idea that with the growing popularity of mobile

    browsing, designing for mobile access could influence desktop design. This includes

    not just web pages but also web

    browsers. Ease of access, efficiency and usability are at a premium on mobile Mobile browsing growth in devices where users are restricted by Africa small screens, high network charges and varying support for fonts and colours. In Africa triple-digit percentage

    Where usability and accessibility are growth in mobile Web usage was

    observed 20082009, in just one relatively easy to ignore on a desktop,

    year. Page views in the top 10 they are essential on mobile devices

    countries increased by 374%, because small screen size or difficult

    unique users increased by 177%, navigation have an impact on all users, and the amount of data transferred not just those with sensory impairments. increased by 183%.

    State of the Mobile Web, Given the diversity and range of mobile November 2009 web users and growing reliance on [http://www.opera.com/smw/2009/1mobile browsing to communicate and 1/%5D work, it is essential that we

    accommodate disabled and older users, and those global users for whom access

    through a mobile device is the only means available.

„1.6 billion people are online, yet more than 4 billion people two out of every three

    people on Earth have a mobile device or access to one. By making the Web

    accessible on mobile devices, we can usher in a communications revolution on an

    unprecedented scale and pace.‟ Jon S. von Tetzchner, Co-Founder Opera Software,

    State of the Mobile Web, October 2009 ;

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    Mobile browser wars?

1999 was the heyday of the browser wars on desktop with the web largely subject to

    the desires of two vendors, Microsoft and Netscape, as their browsers Internet

    Explorer and Netscape Navigator went head-to-head in the battle for supremacy.

    The cost to the web in general was significant as proprietary technologies protecting

    the vested interests of these two vendors were pushed to the detriment of web

    standards. Interoperability, accessibility and usability were the casualties as

    developers were forced to take sides and design for one browser, while users found

    that their favourite websites were not guaranteed to work in their browser of choice.

    Web standards provide a formal framework, made up of technical specifications and

    best practices that define how we build web pages. They are interdependent, vendor

    neutral and intended to work across different browsers and platforms to ensure

    interoperability, accessibility and usability of web content.

Well-known examples of technologies that fall into the web standards category are 78HTML and CSS. All browsers desktop or mobile as well as assistive

    technologies are designed to work with HTML and CSS, two technologies that can

    be considered the backbone of the web.

    Proprietary web technologies, unlike web standards, are vendor specific and

    therefore can be problematic to implement across different platforms and browsers.

    A good example of this is Flash. On the desktop computer, Flash content can be

    made to a large extent accessible but keyboard access into and out of Flash content

    from the web page itself is not possible with Firefox, Safari, Opera, Google Chrome

    or other browsers, but only with Internet Explorer which in turn uses another 9proprietary plug-in, ActiveX, to enable keyboard access.

As a result, keyboard-only users miss out on Flash content on the desktop. Similar

    problems are presenting on mobile devices, as Flash is not supported as well as

    HTML or CSS. This affects all users and is an example of how both interoperability

    and accessibility are damaged when proprietary technologies are used.

The web is too vital for commerce, for business, and for society to be in the

    hands of any one vendor. While on the desktop the web is becoming increasingly

    open, the mobile web is at an important crossroads where mobile platform and

    browser lock-in could threaten to splinter development of mobile content as developers feel they have to choose one platform to develop for. This means they

    may have to develop using proprietary technologies rather than open web standards

    and technologies that can be deployed cross-platform and browser-independent.

     7 HTML5 Web Forms [http://www.whatwg.org/specs/web-apps/current-work/multipage/forms.html] 8 CSS Zen Garden [http://www.csszengarden.com/%5D 9 Henny Swan, „Flash and keyboard access across browsers‟ [http://www.iheni.com/flash-and-

    keyboard-access-across-browsers/]

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    Safeguarding usability and accessibility

Looking ahead, what lessons can be learnt from desktop web development and

    what technologies and best practices should we be looking towards to advance the

    mobile web while safeguarding its usability and accessibility?

    We need first to consider those issues that are barriers to usability and accessibility

     and the constraints on web design and authoring:

    Display screen size (Viewport) On a desktop we contend with varying screen sizes

    but guidance exists as to what sizes should be accommodated. On mobile devices

    there are dozens of different screen sizes and resolutions, making it extremely

    difficult to know the sizes for which content needs to be designed.

Handset capability All handsets are not equal. Some, such as the iPhone, may

    offer a good range of colours, fonts and styles, whereas others may have limited

    options. This being the case it is tricky to know, as the web page author, what

    baseline set of colours, fonts and styles should be used. You do not want to pick

    styles that do not render well on mobiles devices but, equally, you do not want to

    constrain design on phones that have advanced styling support.

Technology supported Not all handsets can support all technologies. Flash and

    JavaScript are obvious technologies that fall into this category. Web page authors

    need to think about using alternative content (also known as fallback content) so that

    mobile devices without Flash or JavaScript can still access this content using HTML

    replacements.

Context This is probably the hardest area to allow for on mobile devices as it is the

    least easy to define and predict. Context affects the browsing experience more on

    mobile devices than desktops as users find themselves accessing content on the

    move, often with little time and not always in the best of conditions. There may be

    poor light, too much glare, noise, poor signal, prohibitive page download costs or

    keypads (touch or otherwise) that are difficult to use.

    The challenge of content development for mobile devices is arguably more difficult

    than for desktop given the variety and disparity of mobile devices available today,

    and their support capability, plus the fact that handsets change and are upgraded

    frequently. The last point can work in favour of the web page author, as the

    expectation is that mobile devices will improve quickly. However, with the global

    market in mind, many people in developing countries do not upgrade mobile devices

    as frequently as in the developed world.

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    Mobile web versus full web

Given the issues outlined above, there is much debate about whether the full web

    can exist on mobile devices. This is also referred to as 'one web'. If a recent article in

    CNN is to be believed, the advent of mobile access is spelling the end of the web as

    we know it so it is no longer the 'internet' but the 'splinternet':

    For many years, the Internet was relatively simple: Everyone surfed the same Web.

    Fast forward to 2010 and the idea of a one-size-fits-all Web is a quaint memory,

    thanks to the rise of the iPhone, Kindle, BlackBerry, Droid and of course, the much-10hyped iPad.

    The issue is that the current trend is to build websites and apps that work for specific

    platforms using specific technologies. This very much reflects the problems on

    desktop ten years ago, and as we saw then, this was a major obstacle in terms of

    developing and evolving the web.

Combined with this is the concern that the full web cannot be realised on devices

    owing to hardware limitations, context, display space and technology supported. The

    recent launch of Apple's iPad has sparked much debate, as Apple does not support 11Flash on iPad (nor does it on iPhone).

Given the positive reaction to the launch of iPad, the fact that it cannot support the

    'full web' is significant. However, the response to those that lay claim to the full web

    on mobile devices being a myth in itself, is that if standards and best practices are

    followed then one web should remain the goal.

The next few sections look at some of the standards and best practices that we can

    follow to ensure that we, as users, can enjoy not only the full web on mobile devices

    but also an accessible one.

Progressive enhancement

„Progressive enhancement‟ is an umbrella term that first came about when web

    technologies on the desktop had differing levels of support by desktop browsers and

    assistive technologies, depending on their functionality.

    These varying levels of support meant that web content developers could never be

    sure that any given user on any combination of platform, browser or assistive

    technology could access their content. The solution therefore was to build a basic

     10 CNN, „End of the Internet as we know it‟

    [http://money.cnn.com/2010/02/03/technology/Web_splintering/index.htm?postversion=2010020313]

    11 Jeffrey Zeldman „Flash, iPad and standards‟ [http://www.zeldman.com/2010/02/01/flash-ipad-

    standards]

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