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Chris Stewart

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User since: 16 Jul 1999

Articles written: 3

You're sitting at your computer making a webpage. The dimensions of your screen are only 140X150. Any files you use cannot exceed a total of 100k. You are in; A) Content Heaven B) Design Hell.

Well, actually you're sitting at your desk whipping something up for a . Answer the above question honestly, because they way you answer is very telling about your work as a web designer and it will become an issue over the next 5 or so years.

A few years ago nobody bothered creating content for portable devices, except for some very proprietary ways of getting stock quotes or sports scores sent to your pager. Your pager. Y'know, those little things people used to have to get phone messages on the go. Nevermind. In any case, this was dealt with using programming. Design never entered into it, it was all just text (you didn't even get to tinker with the font. Brrr!) In fact nobody got to tinker with the content. Weather, Canucks scores, and the ups and downs of the stock market were usually just drawn from standardized news feeds and parsed out to a person's pager.

That's all changed. Palm-held devices are now lighter, cheaper, have relatively large amounts of storage space, and recently, colour displays, sound, and modems have become common. But it's not like you can make people load your web page onto their Palm Pilot. The whole point of hand-held computing devices like this is that they're convenient. The whole convenience angle is lost if it takes minutes instead of seconds to load your daily dose of news, sports, and so on from your PC to your PDA.

So welcome to the future. The good news is that your potential readership is increasing or, at least, by giving them the option to pick you up off the desk and go outside they may increase the amount of time they spend at your site. But the bad news is that in order to keep load times to a minimum, images (while an option) are often left out. Not to mention tables, bullet lists, image maps, umm. And sound. And Java. In fact, anything fancier than HTML-lite is right out. A good example would be the format adopted by for the AvantGo version of its daily dose of smarm.

Count the images. Two. Tiny. Very.

It's a given that the amount of memory and flair that can be applied to these portable weblets will increase as pocket-sized devices storing them become more powerful. You'll recall how the same thing happened during the early years of the Web. To a certain degree, it's still going on. So you're thinking, "Great! By the time I get up to speed on designing for portable devices, they'll be zippy and warm and fuzzy." Well, no. It's not the machines that dictate the size of a web document -- it's the bandwidth and bandwidth is measureably finite.

Flash animations were a serious undertaking for the majority of surfers and their machines as recent as maybe two years ago. What increased their prevalence on the Internet had less to do with the processing power of the boxes surfers were using, but with their connection to the wubbawubbawubba. As the world, generally and figuratively speaking, tossed it's 28.8s and moved to ADSL and cable, the waiting time to load a heavy page (be it animation, Java, images, or the like) shrank. Which meant there was a lot more bandwidth for designers to take advantage of, without having to worry so much about the luddites and their low-end connections.

When it comes to handhelds, it's back to the designer stone age (so to speak). Palm computing is not limited in its processing power (I've seen a number of units that are at least as smart as a 486). Mostly it's limited by its connection to the web (though teensy screen sizes don't help much either) which is typically a direct connection to the computer (say, through a serial port. Or an Appletalk port for the other side of the fence). Not is particularly fast, at least for convenient transfer of large files on the run. Cellular systems (analog and digital) aren't any faster. And the situation won't be improving much any time soon.

It's a good guess that over the next few years wireless data transfer will improve (I don't know if anything can speed up a serial port), increasing the convenience of handhelds, which in turn will increase their popularity. Repeat. However, how much it will improve is anyone's guess. Bandwidth will always grow slower than the hardware. Even if bandwidth improves, unless cell time becomes free like air (*snort*), Palm owners will certainly base their surf decisions on time. Essentially, the faster they can get what they're looking for and then hang up to read it offline, the better.

So what's it all mean? That's hard to say (I'm just talking here, I didn't promise you any hard answers or wise solutions). Maybe for most of web designers it will have little effect. PDAs are nowhere near as prolific as desktop units. Perhaps creating lean and mean content won't be a problem except for a select few sites whose mandate is to supply a customer with content-to-go. Maybe by the time remote content becomes a common consideration, bandwidth won't be. Food for thought.

Actually, now that I think about it, when you consider the number of cellphones out there, with text messaging built into the system as a throwaway freebie, maybe you'd better start eating that thought food now. It should be a foregone conclusion to web designers (even if it often isn't to the people who employ them) that the sites on the web who get all the looks are the ones who provide content and even in the megahertz future we live in, content is still largely text. And the one constant in browsing-a-go-go is text. Portables love text.

Or maybe I'm on crack. I guess the next few years will tell the tale. With companies like Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Unwired Planet, Nortel, Philips, Siemens, and Mitsubishi all endorsing WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and installing WAP browsers in their products, it's sure looking like my rock habit isn't as big as you might think. In the meantime I'm off to Content Heaven. Ta!

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[Eds. Note: castewar is a web-a-holic who runs his own free-love and content site at He's also been known to smoke his share of the rock.]

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