Mobile Madness: What Really Constitutes A Mobile-Friendly Site?

Welcome to E-Commerce Semantics 101. Your philosophical question for the day: When is a site truly mobile-friendly?

A statement issued this week from Cisco ponders the question, but it starts in a strange way. The statement's first sentence: "Mobile devices represent a major growth opportunity for the retail industry by providing a new purchasing channel for consumers, a Cisco study reveals."

The Princeton University WordNet dictionary project defines "reveals" as to "make known to the public information that (which) was previously known only to a few people or that was meant to be kept a secret." So Cisco believes that the position that "mobile devices represent a major retail growth opportunity"—and that consumers can make purchases on a cellphone—was known only to a few people?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that that is clearly not the case. The only logical conclusion is that Cisco somehow hadn't known about this opportunity until it did this survey, or else it wouldn't have found this statement of the obvious to be so "revealing."

Was discussing the Cisco statement with a mobile industry CEO on Thursday (June 4), and that mobile exec said something intriguing. He saw it as a good thing that an operation as large as Cisco would say such a thing, as it confirmed the significance of the mobile market.

Confirmed the significance of the mobile market? Was this seriously doubted by anyone? For the major retailers today who do not have significant mobile Web support—OK, that's almost everyone, other than perhaps Amazon and Barnes&Noble—is it because they doubt that the 3-billion-strong mobile market is worth pursuing? Or is it more likely that the technical challenges don't get a high enough priority?

Mobile commerce today is in that familiar classic battle of Chicken.com versus Egg.com: Retailers know the mobile users are out there, but they also know that few are trying to use the devices for making purchases. Consumers are open to making such purchases, but they can't because so few retailers support it.

Someone needs to make the first move and consumers can't. Then we move to the next silly obstacle: Major retailers won't invest in a truly robust mobile deployment until they see most of their rivals doing so. Yes, this is why American business is in the global position it's in today--that grand American Can-Do-But-Only-If-You-Do-It-First attitude.

In the meantime, the handful of retailers who do truly support mobile will have that market segment all to themselves.

What Cisco did was look at 45 retailers. Cisco didn't release the full list of those 45, nor did it release the report itself, but it did indicate that among the 45 were Amazon.com, Best Buy, Sears, Circuit City, Quelle, Otto, Macy's, FNAC, Bol.com and the Argos Home Retail Group. It should also be noted that Cisco said the survey was done sometime between Dec. 1, 2007, and Jan. 31, 2008. Given that few retailers will typically launch new features in December or the first couple of weeks in January, there's reason to believe that the numbers might look better today.

Without knowing fully who those 45 retailer were, it's unclear how representative Cisco's numbers are, in the sense that the selection process might have inadvertently (or, for the paranoid out there, not inadvertently) over- or under-emphasized retailers who support mobile.

With that caveat, the Cisco statement said that six percent of the examined sites had Web pages and a URL "specifically designed" for mobile.

But here's where definitions get a bit confusing. The report said that almost half (42 percent) of the examined sites "provide the ability to view product information on a mobile device through reformatted Web pages or specific mobile pages," 15 percent "offer the ability to conduct transactions (make purchases, complete inventory queries, etc.)" and 10 percent support SMS to answer questions.

Wouldn't a site that allows mobile users to conduct transactions by definition be a site specifically designed for mobile? Isn't the ability to see reformatted pages, buy products and send SMS questions back and forth pretty much all that one would expect from such a mobile-friendly site?

Stepping away from these definitions, the question shouldn't be whether a site supports mobile. It should be whether a site supports mobile well. Put another way, how well does a site in 2008 need to support mobile, given that so few sites are even trying to do more than the basics?

For example, I can turn on my 3-year-old Palm Treo smartphone, launch the Web browser and see—kind of—every Web page out there. Does that mean a site supports mobile? What if the site crafts the world's most basic ASCII page to display a very limited version of its inventory and perhaps throws in a store finder? Is that mobile-compliant? How fully featured and robust does a smith.com/mobile site have to be before it's mobile-compliant?

Lindsay Parker, a director in Cisco's retail practice who was involved in this report, described many of the 42 percent of e-tail sites that "provided some ability to view pages" from mobile devices as " slow, cumbersome and challenging." (Come to think of it, that same language was used on my last performance review, but I digress.)

The runaway success of Apple's iPhone—and other larger-screened smartphones it is inspiring—will force this issue even more. Although BlackBerries and Treos and many other smartphones today can access the Web, it's not very pleasant. As the iPhone and iPhone wannabees make mobile Web browsing visually attractive, the pressure on retailers will soar. And so, too, will revenues from e-tailers who will suddenly discover that convenience can be a very pleasant thing come the end of the quarter.

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