If you’re running a major brand and you aren’t in the mobile space yet -- you should know by now that you’ll need to take the plunge in 2010 or risk being left behind by your competitors. Mobile is here and is fast becoming one of the dominant ways users consume content and make purchases.

This is the first in a two-part series on why mobile websites are the correct first step for brands that are just establishing a mobile presence.

Why Mobile is Relevant

Those of us following the mobile landscape and Web have heard about mobile being “real” for about 5 years now (or more). So, what has finally changed to make mobile a core pillar of online strategy roadmaps this year?

The primary drivers for mobile’s new relevance to users are the removal of two formerly significant adoption barriers: device usability and device accessibility (based on price point).

Device Usability

Thanks to the folks at Apple, the iPhone redefined the approach to mobile device user interaction  -- this may happen once again with the iPad.

We are no longer expected to click-through text fields with an awkward trackball and click number “2” three times to type the letter “c”. Even if you had a windows mobile or palm smart phone -- the browsing experience was still clumsy, even for early adopters.

The iPhone, and a myriad of fast followers, have solved this problem; browsing on the new touch-screen smart phones and smart devices is a completely new experience that even novice users quickly adopt.

Device Accessibility

We’ve seen all mobile phone price points drop significantly. Vodafone recently released the cheapest phone in the world -- the Vodafone 150 -- which retails for US$ 15 (without carrier subsidies) and is aimed at connecting users in developing markets.

Along the same trend, mobile device makers have released a myriad of new touch screen smart phones aimed at picking-up the market share Apple left on the table by marrying to AT&T. New manufacturers are inserting themselves in a market previously dominated by few firms, and consumers are reaping the benefits of the rich variety of choices now available in the market for both high-end and mainstream consumers.

Assuming you agree that the removal of entry barriers is what finally made mobile relevant to mainstream users, then be sure to carry that knowledge forward and bake it into your mobile strategy and product release roadmap. Don’t forget why mobile has become important and apply that by starting with a mobile website.

(Editor's Note: Make sure you read Part 2: Why Mobile Websites Are Better Than Mobile Apps, Part 2)

Why a Mobile Website Should Be Your First Step

There are many reasons why a mobile website should be the first phase in a multi-phased approach which ultimately includes mobile apps.

Remove Barriers of Entry

By starting with a mobile website you can make sure that the first time someone types in your URL from their mobile device, they are immediately detected as a mobile channel user and redirected to a mobile-optimized experience -- or even better to a device-optimized experience.

This approach removes the barriers of entry because it doesn’t force your users to download an application before interacting with your brand AND can still serve a device-optimized experience to your users. This will become more and more important as many mainstream users don’t know what an App store is and don’t want to find out.

Increase Your Brand’s Reach

A mobile website is also preferred as a first step because it ensures your reach is always maximized.

Once you’ve matured your mobile strategy you will likely have both a mobile optimized website and a mobile application for users to download. These two approaches are complimentary not mutually exclusive.

With both a mobile app and a mobile website you will always be able to reach the users that are accessing your site by mobile even if they don’t have your application installed on their device. This scenario will present itself because users either don’t know that your application exists, don’t have time to download the application, don’t want to add yet another icon to their cluttered device interface or simply don’t know how (some of them won’t want to learn either).

Whatever the reason, without a mobile website to fall back on your users are no longer served an optimized experience unless they surpass a hurdle you’ve placed in their path -- a hurdle that doesn’t need to be there.

Graceful Degradation of the User Experience

You will also be able to reach users that have less popular or older devices. You can accomplish this by including a variant of the mobile website design which is specifically targeted at the 20% of your users that are on, shall we say, “legacy” devices. This will be your brand’s least sexy design, to be sure, simply because it will serve as the lowest common denominator in design.

There are too many different device types in the market with unique form factors to build an optimized experience for them all. But as with all good design your brand should tackle this with a graceful degradation of the user experience. Your users will thank you and so will your bottom line.

There’s more...

There are certainly additional reasons why mobile websites are the right first step into the space. I’ll address them in my next post: Why Mobile Websites Are Better Than Mobile Apps, Part 2.