The State and Future of the Mobile Web: A View from Breaking Development Conference


The Biodome

The Breaking Development Conference just wrapped up at the massive Gaylord Texan Hotel/Conference Center in Dallas, TX. The list of speakers for the conference was staggering and covered almost everyone doing amazing stuff with the mobile web right now. The amount of valuable information shared during Breaking DC was enough to make you want to puke but also make you want to step up to the plate and contribute to such an amazing field. Here’s my recap:

PPK: The Future of the Mobile Web

PPKPPK, of Quirksmode fame, set out to enrich tomorrow’s world with mobile. Giving a thoughtful example of how mobile can help a poor fisherman in Indonesia, Peter Paul brought up a host of issues and opportunities to help the fisherman get data via SMS, share apps via Bluetooth, and manage monetization of mobile services without an app store.

PPK == Macgyver in my book. While most of the other speakers focused on the opportunities of the future of the mobile web via smartphones, PPK offered solutions utilizing existing (relatively low-fi) technologies. Mobile is so important in the developing world and people, both rich and poor, need to solve problems with mobile in order to better their lives.

Stephanie Rieger: Beyond the Mobile Web

riegerThe amount of respect Stephanie (and Bryan) Rieger receive is so incredibly well-deserved. The sheer amount of thought and consideration that goes into their research and solutions is staggering. Stephanie did a fantastic job articulating the current/future mobile landscapes and the complexities of the “mobile context”. A few notes:

  • Reliance on physical location is disappearing as a requirement for learning and communicating.
  • 77% of people have mobile phones today. This percentage will only grow.
  • The feature phone today is the smartphone of 2 years ago.
  • Short activity or distraction mobile context is still true, but is being combined with other activities. Not always short distracted bursts.
  • Continuity is increasingly important between contexts. People get upset when they can’t access the same information across multiple devices.
  • “We need to make richer content instead of richer containers”. The word “content” was a huge theme throughout the conference. Its really really really important create smart content that’s able to be adapted to multiple contexts.

This talk was absolutely amazing. Check out the presentation here

Brian Leroux – After HTML5: Mobile Device APIs and PhoneGap

lerouxBrian Leroux gave a nitty gritty look into Phonegap, which serves to meld the power and ubiquity of the web with the advanced capabilities of native apps. Brian got ragged on because of his “language”, but its totally justified considering the massive task he is undertaking.

  • There are two types of device APIs: sensors and data
  • Pluggable features: the ability to choose your own features catered to your project is on the Phonegap roadmap
  • “Building adaptive experiences is increasingly important”
  • “Engineers will abandon all best practices in order to solve a problem”
  • “Users want to see your content more than they want to see a rounded corner”

Brian Fling – What the Web Community Can Learn from Mobile

FlingBrian joked about being a mobile “veteran of war” and I believe it. In some parts of his talk he made me feel the same way I feel when my grandpa talks to me about surviving the Great Depression: inadequate and awe-inspired. As someone who’s been through some shit he was able to challenge the audience to strive to do better, to rise above the current constraints of the mobile landscape and make some serious stuff happen. Because this telecom exec named “Chuck” has us all our industry in the palm of his hand and its up to us to prove our worth.

  • Challenge is to bring UX, web and mobile together. Fragmentation is more a problem now than ever before
  • We tend to forget that mobile web apps didn’t exist before the iPhone.
  • “Be skeptical about anyone who claims to have the answers to mobile”
  • The ubiquitous computing era is the next step in the evolution in computing. Future of mobile isn’t about the web or apps. It’s about omnipresent connectivity
  • Tablet users swipe horizontally first, touch phone users swipe vertically first
  • Adding more supported devices to your solution adds to the development cost exponentially
  • Clients would rather pay more for native app. Can’t even sell a heavily-discounted mobile web solution.
  • Biggest challenge is getting data to fit into a bunch of different platforms
  • No CMS is suited for multiple contexts.The client is not your problem, it’s your data.

Check out the presentation here.

James Pearce – Building Tomorrow’s Web with Today’s Tools

pearceJames has been everywhere in mobile and has the unfortunate task of demolishing “mobile web is easy” trolls online. I’ve learned so much from James’ wealth of experience. He discussed how the capabilities of the mobile web are increasing every day. People have come to expect native experiences within their mobile browsers (and why not? Most people don’t really understand the difference). James breaks down the current trend towards a more robust, HTML5-driven, app-like mobile web.

  • Mobile standards, hardware and browsers are coming together to create a perfect storm
  • The mobile web is bored of being just documents and is moving towards applications
  • “Html5” helps describe the shift of the web towards something more capable and robust
  • “Mobile is an adjective, not a noun.” The mobile web is not the 320px web
  • We need to revisit progressive enhancement. A paper plane can’t enhance up to a real airplane that can fly you across the ocean.

Jason Grigsby – Native Is Easier. Web Is Essential.

grigsJason did a fantastic job breaking down real world scenarios when creating kick-ass mobile web experiences. One thing in particular resonated with me: his example of a rigid web environment they couldn’t touch and therefore had a host of challenges porting things over to a separate mobile site. Welcome to the world me and @_ajacks deal with every day. I’m confident I’ll continue to rely on Jason’s work to help me get things done.

  • There is no simple solution for mobile. Responsive web design is too broad a brush to paint with.
  • Pro Tip: use carrier stores as testing labs
  • Doing the mobile web RIGHT requires a huge overhaul that is overwhelming and depressing
  • “We’ve made the Internet in our image…which in America means obese”. People won’t wait more than 5 seconds for a site to load.
  • Responsible responsive web design means mobile first responsive web design
  • We’re all on the same team facing the same challenges.
  • Present CMS systems aren’t cut out for adaptive experiences. The way we bold text in HTML is different than bolding text in iOS.

Check out his presentation here. Jason also went the extra mile and was live-tweeting his points during the presentation. Here’s what I have to say about that.

Luke Wroblewski – Mobile First

lukeLuke’s presentation is the first thing I put in front of anybody that’s considering any sort of mobile strategy. ‘Mobile First’ is so chock full of useful information and I’m so fortunate to get to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth (note: Luke isn’t actually a horse). I was really impressed with how current he keeps his deck so absolutely nobody can call him out on anything. It is correct. Period.

  • Smartphones passed PC shipments last quarter…way ahead of schedule. Anyone without a strong mobile strategy is at a disadvantage
  • 40% of all tweets are sent on mobile
  • The average smartphone user visits up to 24 web sites per day on their phones
  • Optimizing performance for mobile is increasingly important. You’ve got at most 5 seconds of someone’s time.
  • 84% of mobile users using at home, 80% at misc. times, 74% while waiting in lines, 64% at work. So many great opportunities to connect in multiple situations
  • Products that are designed for short bursts of interaction are flourishing
  • We’re going to see more and more interactivity through touch interfaces. That’s one of the only trends we can be sure of.
  • Great reference site for touch interactions

Jonathan Snook – Fake It ’til You Make It: Creating Mobile Apps That Feel Like Native Apps

snookSnook captivated the audience as he displayed absolutely gorgeous native apps rewritten using web technologies. He didn’t tell, he SHOWED us that mobile web apps are not only possible, they can be super useful and super sexy. Respect.

  • Snook managed to cut the initial page load by 30% by leveraging CSS3 techniques.
  • If you don’t need access to device APIs then you should consider web over native.
  • Hardware-accelerated CSS translates are crucial for creating smooth experiences
  • Mobile emulators fall short to test interactions (especially multitouch). Real devices are required to accurately test

Check out the presentation and awesome demos here.

Stephen Hay – Real World Responsive Design

PPKCSS layouts have always been really tricky, and mobile has totally amplified the shortcomings of current CSS layout methods. Stephen did a great job showing us the future of web layouts. More importantly Stephen clarified and expounded upon the super hot topic of responsive web design. To be successful with responsive web design a site needs to truly adapt to the circumstances instead of just changing the layout.

  • “What happens when the iPad 3 comes out and its triangular?”
  • Platform-agnostic content vs platform-aware content isn’t the argument. It needs to be both in order to work.
  • There’s too much “I think” and “probably” when it comes to making business and design decisions in mobile. Use real testing and analytics to make decisions.
  • Layout != design
  • Structure content first. Embrace uncertainty in order to get things done and jump the hurdle of pixel perfection.
  • display: flexbox is (or at least will be) a powerful tool for creating flexible and adaptable experiences
  • Responsive design goes way beyond just fluid grids & media queries for viewports—it adapts to circumstances

Brian Alvey – A Perfect Storm: When Mobile Met the Cloud

AlveyBrian discussed the cloud like I’ve never thought about it before. So much of our mobile world we owe to the power of the cloud. As Brian Fling said, the age of ubiquitous computing is right around the corner and Brian Alvey’s there making real-world solutions for that next step.

  • You want your data to be accessed across all devices.
  • Cloud computing is where the web was 10-15 years ago. Window of opportunity to do large-scaling projects before the big companies catch up
  • The app is just the printer. All the data is happening in the cloud.
  • Advantages of mobile apps in the cloud: pricing, scaling, redundancy, and speed to market.
  • Be a “perfect storm” chaser. There’s always going to be new opportunities that arise from new convergences

Ben Combee – The Enyo Framework: Designing for Mobile Apps and Speed

Ben introduced the next generation of webOS devices, including a super tiny phone, the next Pre, and the HP TouchPad tablet. There was a bunch of drool on the tablet by the end of the conference. Its really awesome seeing a really powerful and capable platform being built with web technologies.

  • HP makes 120 devices every minute
  • The HP TouchPad looks like an amazing device that uses web technologies (webOS) as its backbone.
  • The Enyo framework: higher module levels, object oriented, scalable and fast rendering

David Kaneda – Building Richer User Experiences with Sencha Touch

PPKDavid broke down Sencha touch, which was really beneficial for me as I’ve never had a play with it. I especially loved his comments about how important good design is in the post-iPhone era. Design and functionality go hand in hand in the mobile web, and Sencha’s a great example of those things working together.

  • Sencha touch supports iOS, BlackBerry 6, webOS, and the “ever-growing list of Android devices”
  • Free platform that provides touch events, scroller component, UI widgets, data package, oh my!
  • Sencha’s makes it really easy to tweak a whole host of variables: from things as simple as color to toggling ‘bounce-style’ animations for Android

Nate Koechley – Taxonomy of Touch

PPKNate closed the conference with hands-down the best joke. He got a round of applause for describing the wrong conference (Geo-spacial something or other) using mobile web lingo. You had to be there. Anyways, Nate did a fantastic job thoughtfully describing touch events, their unique opportunities and challenges. He discussed bringing the touch-like interactions back into the mouse-and-keyboard world and about solving user problems with the best suited interaction types.

  • The details are not the details, they are the design
  • Many different touch inputs. Direct input is what’s driving change
  • 200,000 touch devices sold every day
  • The current mentality is ‘fit interactions to the device’. This should change to ‘fit interactions to the user’
  • Determine what the user trying to accomplish and set out to solve with the best possible interactions
  • Bringing touch events to desktop and other contexts: challenges and opportunities


Whew. So that’s a whole lot to gnaw on. As Nate pointed out by asking “answers?” at the end of the conference, we have a long way to go before there’s any “right” answers for these problems. All I know is that all these people, including the attendees, are crazy smart and all have their heads and intentions in the right place.

The biggest thing I want to see is this great community coming together, helping each other out and establishing a foundation for the mobile web to stand on. Everyone has their war wounds, their tricks and their opinions. I think its time to come together and build a site to help educate people on the mobile web and establish it as the powerful medium it is. We don’t all have to agree on much, we just need to agree on, as Brian Leroux put it, “this Internet thing has legs”.

If you are interested in helping out, I’d love to here from you. Hit me up.

Thanks for such a great experience.

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