A (Mobile) Dao of Web Design


Morons love to quote philosophers.New forms of media take a while to go mainstream; but, when they do, it is often because they are inspired by what came before. Referencing a more familiar, mainstream medium has often proven to be a successful strategy, as these examples show:

  • Early radio broadcasts were self-promotions for department stores, who also happened to own the radio stations in an era before radio advertising or listener sponsorship.
  • Early TV broadcasts were basically “radio with pictures.” (Check out Queen Elizabeth’s 1957 Christmas broadcast, her first ever.)
  • Early music videos almost always featured the band performing, and even more often an extended closeup of the lead singer. (Watch “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.)
  • The first GUI-based operating systems featured desktops, folders, and windows — all metaphors drawn from the physical world.
  • Some of the first websites were little more than online bulletin boards populated by hyperlinks to other parts of the web. Tim Berners-Lee himself called his site an Online Virtual Library in 1991.
  • Who can forget that endearing “You’ve Got Mail!” sound that played when you logged into AOL from your 28.8k dialup modem? Your mailbox was, of course, a metaphorical one that helped bring email to the mainstream.
  • Facebook’s initial UI was based on the traditional facebook given to Harvard College students at the beginning of their first year.

John Allsopp made this point elegantly in his canonical blog post entitled A Dao of Web Design, written when Web 1.0 was at its peak of the hype cycle in 2000. He drew a connection between the oldest and newest forms of media at the time — the written word and the browser-interfaced webpage, respectively.

Allsopp did not make this point nostalgically, however. He was instead worried that the web, still in its infancy, was headed in a dangerous direction, mainly due to its dependency (perhaps over-dependency) on its printed parent:

The web is a new medium, although it has emerged from the medium of printing, whose skills, design language and conventions strongly influence it. Yet it is often too shaped by that from which it sprang. “Killer Web Sites” are usually those which tame the wildness of the web, constraining pages as if they were made of paper – Desktop Publishing for the Web. This conservatism is natural, “closely held beliefs are not easily released”, but it is time to move on, to embrace the web as its own medium. It’s time to throw out the rituals of the printed page, and to engage the medium of the web and its own nature [emphasis added].

Almost 12 years later, we are experiencing a new revolution in the webpage, but this time the stakes are higher. Why? Because of an onslaught of mobile devices.

The growth of mobile devices in enormous, akin to the growth of the internet itself:

Historical growth of technologies

Morgan Stanley and Mary Meeker even calculated that shipments of mobile devices started to exceed those of PCs in Q4-2010. Accessing the web through a mobile device can still be a pain, however, because the last two decades of web development have been focused on the traditional internet browser. Apple invented the “app” to solve this problem by putting the web in a tiny walled garden, but the app world lacks much of what the true web has to offer.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of Android, which creates the opposite problem; instead of one restrictive standard, its ecosystem features many pieces of hardware of varying specifications and capabilities. Oh, and most are running old software:

Android fragmentation

This is a mess. To achieve internet nirvana on mobile devices, developers need to be able to, in Allsopp’s words, embrace the mobile web “as its own medium.” Standardization to HTML5/CSS3, the advent of Webkit, and growing practice of responsive web design are helping things along, but these advances just put a better wrapper on the web we all know and love.

I’m not sure what the mobile web will look like when it truly comes of age. We’re starting to see examples from the app world that show what may be possible (see Flipboard, Layar, or Infinity Blade), but only time will tell if these app innovations can make it over to the browser.

So, what do you think the mobile web will look like in 5-10 years? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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One Response to A (Mobile) Dao of Web Design

  1. Jason says:

    Really nice [article|info] really love it and subscribed

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