A paradox: improving for the worse

Two things seem to be happening simultaneously on the Web.

  • More and more people are accessing the Web from mobile devices (phones, etc.)
  • Websites are becoming less and less accessible to mobile devices.

Take the example of Opera Mini. This is a brilliant web browser for mobile phones. In fact, because I don’t have broadband access at home, and my PC with a dialup connection is too old and decrepit for today’s websites, Opera Mini on a k750i phone is my main web access.

When you’re using Opera Mini, it feels like running a browser on your phone. It lets you display the desktop versions of websites, rather than the usually extremely cut-down mobile versions, beautifully converted for your particular phone screen. You browse pretty much as you would on a PC.

But really, it’s a remote-controlled browser on the Opera Mini server. You send instructions to it from the 206kB Java application on your phone, and it sends back converted pages for viewing.

This means that virtually all HTML pages can be viewed, subject to a few restrictions. The main one is that any change to what’s on the screen involves receiving a new page from the server: animations like Flash aren’t possible, and neither are interactive effects like menus which pop up when the mouse hovers over them.

Websites seem to be becoming more and more fond of these effects (often, I think, for no good reason at all, but merely to have fun with Flash or dynamic HTML, or to impress the person paying for the design), and thereby becoming less and less accessible. This is rarely announced: one simply visits a favourite website one day and discovers that it doesn’t work any more, or that a crucial function has disappeared.

The worst example I’ve experience was when I woke up one morning to discover that Twitter, which I’d been using for months to communicate with friends, (http://twitter.com) no longer worked. Well not if I wanted to actually send anything. But I’ve also become unable to bid on eBay items. A week or so ago, the lists of menu options in the left-hand column of my WordPress dashboard was replaced by a column of rather cryptic icons with popup menus; I don’t have access to those menu options any more unless I’m in the library.

Previously, apart from length limitations, I could use virtually all WordPress features from my phone.

This really puzzles me, since mobile access is surely becoming more important, not less important…! Surely improving websites would involve making them more accessible to more people, not more restricted in how they can be used? Is it not possible to simply use the most inclusive technology that will do the job for each task?

Edit (March 28th): OK, it turns out that I wasn’t quite right about WordPress. I’ve just discovered, by chance, that clicking the separators in the menu sidebar collapsed or expands the menus. When collapsed, they’re no longer accessible to Opera Mini’s Mobile View. But in Desktop View, which is like looking through a tiny hole at the PC screen, I can click the separators and get the menus back. Which I have just done :-)

So it wasn’t a WordPress change, just a rather nasty feature of its interaction with Opera Mini.

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