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THOUGHT: Is browsing the Internet via PDA and GPRS a good idea?
Posted by Arne Hess - on Saturday, 20.11.04 - 20:15:00 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 10932x
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Contributed by Dr. Wolfgang Irber, PPCW.Net Reader and Business Professional

My first personal experience in accessing the Internet while on the go came with PDAs with built-in GPRS modem. But after excitingly using the mobile access to the Internet for more than two years now I am getting to a point of frustration.

Screen size, performance and bandwidth limitations prevent access to "normal" sites
All PDAs are naturally very limited in terms of screen size. 320 x 240 pixels are far from the 1024 x 768 which is the current standard resolution for most websites. Even though more recent PDAs promise higher resolution screens with 640 x 480, they are still lacking the performance to fluently render the sites with all their graphics, Java, and other plug-ins. And... as long as you pay per volume, it makes a major difference if you display an up-to-date "plug-in and frames overloaded" website with your PDA or with your desktop. Already the download time over GPRS makes it a "waiting event" as in the early days of the Internet. I always turn off the display of graphics to get the content faster (and cheaper).

The solution: Pocket PC friendly sites
Quickly I recognised that the "normal" Internet is a disappointing and very costly option and found special designed web sites. They provide a perfect compromise of simple design, little or no graphics and therefore fast display and little transmission volume. But... finding these websites is a challenge. A good starting point are dedicated portal sites that focus on finding the PDA-friendly version. Also, the famous AvantGo service is the number one address for searching offline and online content. But even the PDA world is far from perfect and there are some general issues with PDA-friendly websites:

Why are the links to PDA-friendly sites so hidden?
First, I don't understand why the links to the PDA-optimized version are as hidden as possible. Is the "little" version something the site owners are ashamed of? It is by the way the same with this website, where Arne is perfectly hiding the PDA-friendly link :-). I'd like to see a PDA icon that clearly signals that's the PDA-friendly version which can be bookmarked. Please website designers of this planet, go "public" with your PDA-friendly links!

Why are the URLs for PDA-friendly sites not following a common schema?
Second, the URL syntax of PDA-friendly sites appear to have reached an evolutionary climax with all their possible variations. The URL of a "normal" site with "www.normal.com" may appear for the PDA-friendly version as "www.pda.normal.com" or "pda.normal.com" or "www.mobile.normal.com" or "www.normal.com/pda/" or "www.normal.com/mobile/" or whatsovever, or even "www.normal.com". With the latter, the server detects the browser version and automatically delivers the PDA-friendly version, but that's the option I hate most. Why? Well, I cannot test the site on my notebook to find out if the site is worthwhile the volume prize. And, with every new version of the Pocket PC Internet Explorer you are in danger not to be delivered the friendly but the GPRS expensive "normal" site as the server misinterprets the delivered identifier. And with the observed variability in URLs it is impossible to guess the PDA-friendly URL, just in case I'd like to find the "low volume" version by try and error.

Why do the Web site designers include links to "normal" web sites into PDA-friendly sites?
Third, browsing on PDA-friendly websites can quickly become a very costly experience. More often than I'd like, the PDA-friendly sites contain links to "normal" sites. With respect to the average 10 kb per "PDA-friendly" vs. 150 kb per "normal" web site, this one click costs 15 times more! No imagine being abroad! There is no warning, no indication, just the packet counter starts to rush. I am already getting very suspicious when seeing a long unexpected delay until the site appears on the screen. That's commonly the indication for high transmission volumes.

Why has the world lost interest in PDA-friendly web sites?
Forth, the innovation time is over. While there was a time when more and more sites also offered a PDA-friendly version, I recently noticed a decline in the "useful" links for small screens. Even the wireless carriers' portal sites seem to loose content. I am more often deleting a link rather than adding one to my favorite list. Even though the old links are still working, the sites do not get updated anymore. Hence, my browsing time is dwindling and I have no interest in increasing my monthly data volume. I already have problems to get my monthly 5 MB over the radio link, and most of it is for email anyway. The PDA-friendly Internet space is a shrinking world.

Why is the "little" Internet so difficult to understand and to access?
Fifth, there is the constant "type-of-connection-issue": the PDA-friendly websites are offered either via the HTTP or the WAP protocol. When connected to my "Internet" GPRS connection and click on a WAP page, my PDA terminates the first connection and starts a "wap" GPRS connection. Or the other way around. Very annoying! Some pages I cannot access at all, even though my girl friend with on older model can. Obviously some incompatibility issues.

WAP pages are supposed to transmit lower volumina, but they are very sluggish in performance compared to HTTP based sites; at least on my Pocket PC aka XDA II using the Pocket Internet Explorer as WAP browser.

Even when I only access the WAP portal of my local provider and use the WAP GPRS connection, some pages I just cannot access. And this is changing from month to month. You never know if you can rely on a link, such as for checking bus time tables or flight connections. This makes me frustrating. And if you are roaming from abroad, all these connection switching is not just adding inconvenience, it is quite expensive too!

Final Conclusion

The outlook for the PDA-friendly "mobile Internet on the go" appears to be mixed. At least, the evolutionary progress is on hold right now, or shall I call it consolidation? Or did the wireless carrier loose interest in the PDA-friendly web world? With respect to the number of sold Pocket PCs with GPRS modem, I wonder if they are missing something, or do I?

If my neighbor would ask me if browsing the Internet on a PDA is good idea, frankly, I would tell him no, not for what he expects, except he needs access to a few specialized sites, than yes. No doubt, it is nice to have the possibility of always accessing the Internet, as long as you are willing to pay the much higher prize. But technological limitations may often block access to the "normal" websites for PDAs. I personally already think about getting a UMTS/GPRS card for my subnotebook in combination with a volume tariff. If you are actively browsing the Internet, you never know how much volume the next click is going to generate, with a time based tariff, you are safe with respect to the costs. And with a notebook, you always know that you can access the site of your desire.

Cheers ~ Wolfgang


 

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Comments
Posted by Arne Hess on 20.11.04 - 20:15:05

Wolfgang, good thought I thought about a couple of times also but I think the
way how it should work is a different one.

First of all, I agree that the mobile versions of sites are pretty hidden and on
one hand I can see the reason for this on the other hand - IMHO users shouldn't
take care of this at all.

I can understand the reason for the "hidden links" because the business how web
sites work is advertising today. However, if you propagate your mobile version
too much, many users might visit the mobile version only instead of the desktop
version. For instance - to save you bandwidth - today I don't have any ads on my
mobile version. If 50 % of my daily visitors would use the mobile version
instead of the desktop version, PPCW.Net would go out of money pretty soon. This
might be one reason, not to promote a mobile version that much.

On the other hand, I have the feeling that visitors shouldn't care about the URL
for a desktop version, a PDA friendly HTML version or a wml/xhtml WAP version
and in a perfect world, the server would recognize what kind of browser the site
is accessing and would serve the appropriate layout - as I do for Windows Mobile
devices.

If you access PPCW.Net with your Pocket PC or Pocket PC 2002 you get an
optimized version which even differentiates from the Pocket PC 2003/2203SE and
Smartphone 2003 versions.

However, the problem for site owners is that there is no standard available -
unfortunately!

Every browser identifies itself but what I miss is a clear identification of
what kind of device it is.

Just three examples:


* My desktop browser identifies itself as: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE
6.0; Windows NT 5.1; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)

* My Pocket PC identifies itself as: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 4.01;
Windows CE; PPC; 240x320)

* My Smartphone browser identifies itself as: MOT-MPx220/0.344 Mozilla/4.0
(compatible; MSIE 4.01; Windows CE; Smartphone; 176x220)


What I would like to see is an addition like: compatible: Desktop or PDA or
Smartphone or WAP

Than a browser based redirection could be done pretty easy and users never
need to take care anymore about URLs for desktop, mobile and WAP versions
anymore. The server could serve the appropriate layout, based on the browser
identification! That's what I would call convenient.

Another benefit is linking to/from other site. For example I link to a story
at Jason's Pocket PC Thoughts (or he links to a story here): it's great if the
right layout is served automatically because than I get the right page if I
click the link on my desktop or on my mobile device. That's something which
annoys me most - if I read the content on a mobile optimized page and follow a
link there just to notice the link I followed is a full blown desktop version!
:-(

Whoever this have to specify, the W3C or anyone lese, this organization
should specify such a way of browser identification as mentioned above because
today I - as a webmaster - have to test every available device and browser to
get the proper browser identification. Therefore, on PPCW.Net, the automatic,
browser-based, redirection is done for Windows Mobile based devices only because
I don't have Symbian or Palm devices to test. And for Windows Mobile, the
original Pocket Internet Explorer is supported only, no ThunderHawk, no Opera,
no NetFront because these browsers uses different identifications. :-(

But you are right - mobile Internet browsing can be a pain, as long as you
don't have a good mobile favorite list on your device. As long as you don't want
to check a site outside this list, everything is ok - if you start Googling the
web mobile - you are lost.

Posted by Russ on 21.11.04 - 08:13:33

Arne, you can design web sites to be compatible with PDA's and Big screen browsers using the same source xhtml/url's etc.. There are web standards out there which try to put forward the seperation of content from style, using (X)HTML formatted by cascading style sheets. 

You can then supply differing style sheets to handheld devices if they follow the standards. You don't have to 'browser check'.  Luckily the PPC 2003 browser does support this.  However this browsers support for CSS is weak so most people try and feed it a less sophistcated, more text based design.

What about the older PPC 2002 browser? Well CSS support is quite poor, but you can hide the style sheets from it and it just displays a plain text rendering of your page. If you have no CSS support (quite a few PDA's,) then you get the plain text view.

If you have a PDA that undertsands CSS (but doesn't understand the handheld bit - some Palm's/SonyEriccsons,) is the only place where you could run into problems as it would display the big screen version. But it is easy enough to have a style switcher (Big Screen / Small Screen) to allow users to alter their view of the web site on the fly.

Try out this web site on a normal browser. Then try it on a few PDA' s and perhaps a few SmartPhones. What you see changes, but the source code for the web page remains the same! (Set PPC IE to 'fit to screen'). Heh you can even download an ebook or two smile

The Perilous Point  by A.J. Hall
http://www.tpp.shoesforindu...

No server side trickery or browser sensing at all smile (Actually this site doesn't have a style swictcher yet, but it is on the way.)

We are improving the handheld format all the time, but developers really need MS to release an IE version for PDA's which at  least supports as much of the web standards and CSS as the IE 6 desktop browser, but preferably does a whole lot better like Firefox.

Is this just a case of lazy or poorly informed web makers?  I think a lot of it is down to the tools. Even in MS flagship VisualStudio 2003, it's quite a pain to get web standard accessible code out of the thing. To be honest, we  don't use it for web work anymore - we'll wait and see if the next verson really is better.

I'd be interested to see what happens to the above site in NetFront or other PDA browsers?  Let me know.

Hope this helps,

Russ

Posted by Wolfgang Irber on 21.11.04 - 13:02:01

[1] Arne, thanks for your comments which provide insight to the website owner's perspective. I totally forgot the commercial aspect!

Russ' comments highlighted a bit the technical background, whereas my thought only focussed on the enduser experience, so we are just missing an official wireless provider's statement.

With respect to all the technical complexities in identifying the proper enduser device, I still think that two different URLs pointing either to the full-blown or the light version are a good enduser satisfying approach. The user can then decide where to go to.

As long as the included add is text-based I would not really mind it in the light version :-) in particular when it helps to preserve the light version for the future.

Posted by Thomas Scheen on 22.11.04 - 13:41:45

Designing Web-pages for dual-use (Desktop/Mobile) requires quite some webmaster know-how. We 'Mobile-users' cannot expect every URL on the WWW to be dual-use-ready. Remember the WAP-fiasco...?

In my opinion, the blocking points are threefold:
1. 240X320 resolution.
2. GPRS-Speed
3. GPRS-Tarification

The first one should be partially reliefed with VGA-screens or better.
For the second & third, actual GPRS-speed today is a laugh. With my Qtek1010 (MDA1), I get a maximum of 42 Kbit/sec on the Belgian Proximus Network and they charge me 0,5 € per 100 kbyte.
This is so ridiculous, I really don't bother anymore.
Therefore, I am desperately waiting for the first PocketPC Phone Edition with VGA-screen, UMTS-connection and an unlimited flat rate of lets say no more than 20€/month.

Thomas Scheen

BTW: I have a set of 14 hand-picked Avantgo-channels that suit my needs quite nicely and which I sync on a daily basis at work (0,0€). With GPRS, that would cost me 5 € each time and abroad (GPRS-Roaming) even more.

Posted by mogando on 22.11.04 - 22:50:01

T-Mobile USA offers unlimited wap for USD 5/month. Down side - you can ONLY access with a device offered by T-Mobile.

Posted by Helio Diamant on 25.11.04 - 06:44:14

I usually use GPRS for borwsing the network only at emergency cases. I myself am very frustrated with that. But I surely use GPRS, and it helps me very much in the following ways:

1. Downloading and sending emails while I am on the way.
2. IM with MSN Messenger
3. Getting updated with an RSS Reader. The reader brings me all the news I need in a format I can read, then I will go into the WEB only for those that are really important to me, reducing considerably my browsing effort.

Posted by Wolfgang Irber on 27.11.04 - 09:31:52

[6] With respect to all comments, it's obvioulsy still the GPRS volume prize that keeps people away from a regular use.

That's actually exactly what I observe with friends that recently bought a XDA or similar device, they ALL just use a selection of Avantgo channels for off-line browsing. Online access via GPRS is strictly limited to little email usage, kind of a nice-to-have feature, but no a must.

I personally favor using the on-line GPRS access as I often only can synchronize with Avantgo once a week, but GPRS browsing is STRICTLY limited to well-known and well-tested PDA-friendly sites, everything else is a financial deseaster :-(
When being abroad, then I limit myself to email ONLY.

What makes me wonder now, how many devices of XDA/MDA/VPA etc. are really used as GRPS online devices, or like the people simply the all-in-one functionality of cell phone and organizer in one device?

Cheers ~ W

Posted by jayson on 01.12.04 - 06:37:55

Internet sufing thru GPRS sucks!
It costs so much in my country.
IE is the least used software in my PDA.

Posted by Tadge on 05.12.04 - 13:13:53

[8] I am sure if you used a decent browser e.g. ThunderHawk or similar you would get more out of browsing on a PDA. I agree IE is useless.

Posted by Wolfgang Irber on 07.12.04 - 11:47:09

[9] This actually relates to another problem. For almost everything you are urged to use a "better" software. But not everybody is willing to buy a 400 Euro device with carrier subscription and spend another couple of 100 Euros for better software. In particular if you want to use a service provided by the carrier who sold you the device. 

In my opinion, a major drawback for a device on the way to mass market acceptance.

Cheers ~ W

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