The toaster isn’t yet wired to the doorbell and the television doesn’t cook breakfast, but the last half decade or so has seen a big-time payoff on the promise of technological convergence. We’re getting closer and closer to the ideal of a ‘black box’, a single device that lets you access all kinds of media content. There are already games consoles that double up as web browsers and social networking tools; even more common is the smartphone, a mobile phone with superior connectivity and the ability to run some pretty sophisticated programs, including web browsers and chat clients.
All of this is exciting to the sci-fi fan watching dreams becoming reality; it’s grist to the mill for gadget enthusiasts, an ever-growing tribe that will eventually include all of us, even the most Luddite and technophobic, in an era when you simply can’t dodge technology anymore. But for web designers and developers, it’s a new set of challenges and opportunities.
Once upon a time, we used to take a certain amount of cross-browser compatibility for granted. We’d optimize for Explorer and Netscape and hope and pray that we didn’t find a client who wanted back-compatibility with IE 6, a browser version so limiting in its (lack of) capability that even Microsoft now has a site telling users that ‘friends don’t let friends use Internet Explorer 6’. Then we’ve had to stay ahead of the explosion in browsers, with options like Firefox, Opera, Chrome and more multiplying, along with the increasing use of Apple products, which meant we learning to optimise for both Windows and Mac-based browsers.
Over time, we’ve learned an important lesson. Cross-compatibility and back-compatibility are important, but what our domain really demands is future- compatibility. For a region, the number of people accessing our clients’ sites via smartphones and other mobile devices may be relatively small now, but the worldwide sales trends for smartphones alone show that this number is destined to grow. Optimising for operating systems and browsers created for devices means extra R&D and extra work, but it also means sound business sense for our clients, who need to reach out to their audiences wherever the audiences really are.
The nature of the media landscape is being reshaped by technology into one- where the content consumer determines points of access far more, than the content provider. Someone out there has your website on her mobile phone right now. How well the site adapts to her device display could spell the difference between creating customer delight or losing a customer and a potential brand loyalist.
The good news is that CSS 3 is pretty helpful in this quest. We’re big fans of CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets. It’s a style sheet language that offers a great deal of control over the look and feel of a site, enabling both consistency and flexibility of styles across a site without using up a lot of bandwidth. And CSS 3 offers modules that are well-suited to deliver device compatibility. This creates easily re-sized backgrounds for pages that can re-fit themselves into the required display size without smashing your page into an undecipherable mess. Moreover, there are emulators that let us preview the appearance of a mobile site while working on the design. It also helps to focus on market research and keep tabs on the popular mobile browsers, thus helping us to play around with these browsers and see what each one is capable of.
If there’s one lesson here it’s that- our world and our work has changed with the ever-changing technology. The unwieldy brick sized early mobile phones with a green display area and an antenna are a thing of the past. Our main job as conscientious web design and development professionals is to stay alert to shifts in technology and usage patterns, adapting in real time. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to deliver streaming web content via our cooking range; in the meantime we’re ready and able to create websites that retain their flair on mobile devices!