Doc Brown
Doc Brown: “Why are things so heavy in the future?”

At mobiForge, Ronan Cremin surveys the last two decades of mobile web technology, from WAP to i-mode to responsive web design to Google’s AMP platform. This long-view perspective reveals responsive web design to be a possible detour from an otherwise steady march of technologies that fork mobile into its own codebase, “the mobile website.”

With AMP, Ronan suggests we’ve kinda come full circle.

And thus here we are, WAP to the future, in a place that looks remarkably like where we started out in the 1990s, with many prominent websites now separately delivering made-for-mobile experience to mobile devices, be it AMP or Instant Articles. Given that there are already one billion AMP pages it’s probably safe to say that there is more mobile-specific content out there now than at the height of the m-dot era.

The ostensible driver behind every one of the mobile-specific platforms is performance. They all serve a separate set of code because mobile gadgets and their networks are slower than other devices.

And yet, there’s little evidence that most publishers are interested in fast mobile experiences. Even as mobile has become far and away the biggest source of traffic, websites have grown heavier and heavier.

Performance is not the priority it should be, but responsive design is not the problem: ads and images are. The tech in platforms like AMP is largely about wrangling abusive JavaScript and handling smart caching, handling responsive images, and other responsible dev practices. This, of course, is the stuff that all of us should be doing, but that most of us aren’t.

These platforms force the business decisions that publishers apparently won’t make on their own.

So it seems that performance is less the “driver” than the passenger when deciding to adopt these platforms. I totally agree with Ronan that the decision to adopt platforms like AMP and Facebook Instant Articles is largely about SEO, not performance:

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.

Which is better—a web with adaptively-served formats or an abandoned web? Are AMP et al the “right” way to fix the problem? Probably not, but it’s working and no other solution is getting any traction. It seems that it takes SEO pressure from Google to instigate change.

So we’re getting performant sites that publishers didn’t otherwise have the gumption to build themselves. That’s good, for sure. But at what cost?

Among several worrying things about AMP and the other new platform-hosted platforms is exactly that: they’re platform hosted. It feels like a monopoly grab, strongly biased by the ad-driven business models of Google and Facebook. Publishers are giving up some agency and even their URLs, which is dangerous. (I’m sure there are many folks at these platforms who are earnestly all about improving performance and user experience, but once all this content is absorbed into big platforms, I’m not convinced that good things will follow.)

But also, yeah, I’m one of the people Ronan mentions who “fret about splitting the web.” I’d hate to see us adopt the retrograde idea that the mobile web experience should be less than the “real” web experience on the desktop. If anything, traffic tells us that the mobile experience is now the real one. Better, however, to create most experiences (and certainly publishing/media sites) as device agnostic. That’s a core principle of the web: it doesn’t care what device you bring to it. Everyone is welcome.

Here we go again

Separate website vs single responsive design is an old argument, and I think the “right” thing to do is still what I suggested back when I wrote this in 2011 in Responsive Web Design or Separate Mobile Site? Eh. It Depends. Default to a single responsive site unless you have such unique opportunities or constraints that the mobile site is effectively a different application:

The bottom line is whether you’re really talking about the same website in the first place. Depending on what you’re building, a mobile website could be an entirely different animal than its desktop counterpart, addressing entirely different needs. The simple thing to remember is that layout≠content. Great designs require considerable attention to both. Responsive web design cannot dictate content strategy, nor vice versa.

The case for making a separate website—for any platform—is when you have an opportunity to make something that is more than and qualitatively differently from what you might make for other platforms. That’s usually a rare case; in most cases, a healthy dollop of progressive enhancement does the trick. (Progressive enhancement is not always easy to do, as Ronan points out, but then again, that’s why we’re all paid the big bucks: to shoulder hard work on behalf of the best possible product.)

The troubling thing, though, is that none of these elements seem to be key factors for publishers in deciding whether to adopt AMP for mobile devices. It’s not about user stories, device capabilities, developer effort, or building the right product. It’s about SEO.

Yet again, ad-driven business models warp decisions to the detriment of the underlying product.

In that way, at least, this isn’t a “back to the future” story. All of the past mobile-platform efforts were at least developed and adopted with the goal of providing the best possible experience to mobile users. With platforms like AMP, that goal seems to be secondary.

No matter what platform you choose, let’s at least carry forward the learnings and principles we’ve taken from the last few years or responsive design. Ronan rounds em up:

  • Don’t limit the choices available to mobile devices.
  • Responsiveness is a good thing.
  • You can’t assume context from device.
  • Device-specific URLs are a bad thing.
  • Smartphones and mobile networks aren’t as fast as you think.

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