Imagine if the Internet were 10 times as large. Now imagine if the explosive growth of the Internet happened 10 times as fast. That is exactly what is happening now.

Today we are at the beginning of a mammoth tech cycle that will eclipse the PC-based Internet and completely change content management. It’s the Mobile Internet Era. If you have not done so already, it’s time to put your mobile strategy in motion.

When I speak with our customers about the mobile web the most important thing I can tell them is that mobile is not an extension of your website -- it’s a completely new paradigm for computing. In fact, in a few years the PC Web may be seen as an extension or sub-set of mobile.

Look at the Research

To better understand this look at the research. Perhaps the best source is Mary Meeker and her team at Morgan Stanley who annually publish the State of the Internet report. According to Meeker, two years ago we entered the Mobile Internet Era, a completely new market cycle for technology. Over the last 40 odd years we have been through four such tech cycles, each lasting 10 years, and each expanding the size of the technology market 10 times. From mainframes to minis to the desktop PC and Internet the same pattern has repeated itself. It’s happening again with mobile.

Indeed the numbers back up this claim. Mobile web users will outnumber PC Internet users in two years and the trend is already clear to see. About half of Facebook users are already mobile and those users are twice as active as PC users; 40% of Twitter’s traffic is now mobile; over 10 billion iPhone applications have been downloaded. The size of the installed base alone makes the shift inevitable: there are 5 billion cell subscribers worldwide — 73% of the people on earth.

When you look at the emerging generation of mobile users the numbers are even more telling. Generation Y is a native mobile generation. According to research stalwart Neilson, Gen-Y’ers send on average over 3,400 text messages per month and their mobile data consumption has risen 400% in two years.

The shift to the mobile internet will impact different vertical markets in very different ways. Clearly some markets are more impacted by mobile than others, but all will be disrupted.

Change Your Content Strategy

When embarking on a mobile strategy the largest shift web publishers need to make is in their content strategy.

The PC web is built around brand-centered design and information architecture. Mobile is built around task-based user experience. If you look at any standard website today the omnipresent section is “About Us;” on the mobile web it should be the opposite -- mobile is “About Me.”

Mobile is about delivering valuable services optimized for devices. A university for instance should make accessing directories, maps, directions, events and other items front and center of their mobile presence. As the mobile solution evolves, those services may extend to show events that are close to me, maps based on where I am and information based on who I am. The focus is on making it easy to engage with content and services on the phone. Brand and design have little place in a 320 pixel form factor.

Content strategy needs to move from static publishing to more application-based services. This will take some retooling for many web publishers, but it will be essential to serve the mobile web.

Mobile Delivery Options

So what does the shift to mobile mean for content managers? Clearly it means that you need a compelling mobile strategy and the right tools to manage mobile. The problem is that mobile is complex. You need to deliver content in the right format, to the right device, with the right set of information. You also need to decide how you want to deliver your content.

Today there are three viable options for delivering content on mobile:

  1. Native Applications: Includes iPhone apps developed in Objective C, Java-based Android apps and other device platforms. Native applications deliver an unparalleled experience, but are expensive to develop, single platform and are limited to app store distribution.
  2. HTML5 Applications: With HTML5 you can deliver very rich mobile web experiences. Using PhoneGap and other JavaScript libraries you can target Android, iPhone and Blackberry with one set of code and emulate native apps with access to device capabilities, off-line access (Airplane Mode) and multi-touch user experiences. Of course all of these capabilities come with some complexity and the challenge of quality assuring the experience across multiple devices.
  3. Mobile Websites (xHTML): A mobile website will cover the broadest range of devices and provide mobile optimized content where people will engage with you first. Assuming you are only targeting the lowest common denominator of devices you can suffice with xHTML and ignore WAP. Publishing a mobile version of your site is relatively straight-forward and should be supported by most CMS applications, whether using stylesheets or global prepend scripts. If you need to target of broad range of older WAP devices it’s a much more complex task.

Beyond these options there are some other cross-platform development tools. The Rhodes framework, for instance, based on Ruby-on-Rails, is a very interesting approach to cross browser application development. But I would say application-centric solutions like Rhodes are outliers for most content publishers needs.

What’s the Mobile Best Delivery Option?

This is a trick question.

There isn’t one best distribution option for mobile content. It really depends on the goals of the organization and requirements of the project. For instance, developing a mobile application for each leading device is expensive and complex, however the rewards can be tremendous. Native applications live on the phone. That means that rather than expecting people to browse to your website, your content and brand is always present and “docked” to the device.

I compare app docking to Monopoly. Owning a part of the phone real estate is incredibly valuable for a brand. Being part of the application tool bar on the iPhone is akin to owning Boardwalk. That is why the value of leading mobile applications has climbed so much recently.

HTML5 and modern mobile websites also support “phone-top” docking, but unless you use app store distribution, this requires using the Touch Icon option in CSS and more importantly requiring the user to select to dock a website or application to the Phone.

Another consideration is device capabilities. Phones come with an increasingly wide array of capabilities, ranging from GPS and mapping, to “accelerometers” that can measure the position and movement of a phone, to cameras that support pictures and “augmented reality” experiences. If your mobile content strategy does not require these capabilities, you may not need to invest in an app or complex development.

The following table compares some of the strengths and weaknesses for each mobile delivery option.

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The Hybrid Strategy

While many types of businesses and organizations need to plan for mobile, for an organization that needs to deliver services to key audiences, whether an association serving members, a university serving students or a hospital serving doctors and patients, I would recommend looking at a hybrid mobile strategy.

HTML5 App Services

The hybrid strategy consists of using HTML5 app services for the front-end mobile experience and xHTML mobile web pages to deliver the actual web content. With a Hybrid Strategy you can launch a modern mobile solution with unmatched device coverage that will not break the bank to develop and support. It will also provide a flexible platform to extend services in the future.

When users visit your hybrid mobile site they have the option to view it like a native mobile application. To achieve this you need to implement a set of cover and section pages using HTML5 that emulate native mobile views for leading devices. These views should use standard design conventions, like Table View, Disclose, Tab Bars, Grouped Table, Carousel and the like. To learn more about mobile application design guidelines you can visit the developer resources for Apple and for Google Android. JavaScript development frameworks like Sencha Touch also provide many of these views out-of-the-box.

You do not need to develop your entire web presence using HTML5 however. HTML5 mobile application views can serve as the scaffolding for a modern mobile website. It will make your mobile web feel like a native app and support the multi-touch experience most mobile users expect. With this approach you do not present the entire website. Rather, organize your information architecture around the key tasks and services users expect or need in a mobile experience.

WebKit Optimized

The application experience should be WebKit optimized. WebKit is the browser engine used by Apple Safari, Google Chrome and many other leading browsers. Focusing on WebKit will cover over 90% of today’s Smart Phone users (measured in data usage) and will support all Apple iPhone, all Android and many Blackberry devices.

xHTML for Most Content

When it comes to the bulk of your content -- those “level 3” web pages like articles and detail pages -- a standard xHTML output with a mobile template is all that is needed. To ensure that pages are optimized for mobile you can use the Mobile OK checker provided by the W3C. Mobile OK will ensure that a page is light enough to load on Edge or other slower networks, meet the proper image formats and are coded to adapt to smaller form factors.

Support Web Layers

The last step in the Hybrid Strategy is support for many different types of devices and outputs. I call these Web Layers.

The first layer is your standard xHTML output for the PC, the second layer is the HTML5 mobile optimized pages that will deliver the front-end of your site, the third layer is the xHTML “mobile OK” output that will support your articles pages as well as alternate views of your cover and index pages for older devices.

You can also optimize a layer for Tablets like iPad or for other device types like Kindle. The key is being able to degrade elegantly between each layer based on the device profile requesting the content. It’s also a best practice to support pivots between the outputs; for instance, a persistent link to see the mobile version or the full web version.

The web layers approach described above really just focuses on the domestic North American requirements for mobile. If you need to provide coverage in Europe or Asia, your strategy will be different, and much more complex, due to the proliferation of devices and standards in those markets.

Device Detection and Targeting

Device Targeting is critical for any modern mobile deployment. If you are using a platform where the application provides a deployment tier, you can set-up User Agents to deliver content by device types. Without a content deployment server you can achieve a similar approach using JavaScript libraries. If you are planning on supporting a broad range of devices you may consider leveraging a system that tracks capabilities and user agent for all popular devices. Volantis has opened sourced their powerful mobile server technology that has an excellent device library.

However, most people agree that today in the North American region you can meet most business use cases by focusing on a handful of key devices or classes of devices. That’s good news for content owners and one of the factors driving the rapid growth of the mobile web. Just a few years ago mobile content providers had to worry about supporting an entire database of devices.

Lastly, while user agent detection is helpful, by using technology as simple as JavaScript you can also capture a deep profile of device capabilities. Indeed, I believe that “capabilities targeting” will soon replace simple user agent targeting and is a good milepost to add to your mobile roadmap.

Rich Media, Images, and Video

There will be no greater adversary in your quest for mobility than dealing with media. While most notable is Apple’s blackballing of Flash, in fact all devices have limitations and unique capabilities when it comes to rich media. The best option is to avoid use of rich media on your mobile pages. If you need to deliver video, then you will need to support targeting and transcoding. The HTML5 video element should provide some relief in this regard, especially when Microsoft updates the Trident Engine for Internet Explorer.

For images, you should create multiple versions with different sizes for different types of devices. If your CMS has image processing you should be able to automate this process. If not, then you need to educate your content contributors to create the specified image formats you have assigned to each mobile view.

Final Thoughts

The shift from the PC web to the mobile web is a major change in content management approach and strategy. Mobile will be several times larger and more impactful than today’s PC web. The time to start a mobile strategy is now.

Start by considering how you can best serve your current web users by optimizing the tasks and information they access from your website for mobile device “Web Layers.”

Secondly, decide what delivery approach best fits your capabilities and needs, whether native apps, HTML5 apps, mobile web pages or the “Hybrid Strategy” discussed in this article.

Work with your content management vendor or development team to leverage your existing content investment for mobile. A good CMS should provide mobile support and help you understand what is possible given the platform.