Nov 142013

I shared my thoughts about the responsive web with some friends and they responded with variations of “people follow the business, the customer is always right, the future is mobile not the PC.” As you might imagine, I was unconvinced.

The argument that the move toward a mobile web is driven by consumer demand depends upon the majority of web traffic going through small screens, and I’m not sure we’re anywhere near that being the case. Or ever will be. I have a smartphone and do a lot of things on it, but I don’t do general web-surfing and don’t think most other people do either. I think there are a very small number of sites that people visit on phones and that most of these are large commercial ventures like Facebook, Google Maps or The New York Times. I think many of these wind up having apps that replace the web interface entirely.

What I think I’m seeing is a designer-driven trend saying “you need to be mobile ready.” And in response, a lot of small traffic sites, most of which have most of their visitors coming through on their desktops and laptops, theme things for mobile. The end result is that, suddenly, interesting sites are sacrificing a hard-won complexity of real value in order to service hypothetical phone browsers that will never show up.

(I read a very long post on this by a design firm that I can’t find now. The writer claimed that clients would want to create a responsive site. The firm goes through traffic numbers and over-and-over sees that the percentage of mobile traffic is in the single digits. And yet, the client wants to spend tons of money to create a responsive site “because it’s the future.”)

To my eye the move to mobile is something like getting LP owners to buy their music a second time on 8-track tape. Or maybe a better analogy would be the push to get ordinary, word-processor-as-typewriter users to buy the new versions of Microsoft Office. The power of the web is its mutability. It changes and becomes bigger and better all the time. An internet that “upgrades” (MSWord, now with a ribbon!) or changes formats (Internet, now available on in 3″ format!) is different insofar as mutability and continuous variation is replaced with incremental differences that can be packaged, named and monetized.


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