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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 11815x
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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