Chrome data compression, Dolphin mobile browser, mobile fragmentation and what that means for clients in 2014

the chrome logoLast week Google announced that the next Chrome Android and iOS update would include the data compression that’s been in the pipeline for some time now.  If you haven’t heard of it, Google’s servers will compress Chrome Mobile traffic, leading to a reduction in the data size of traffic by up to 46%, which in Google’s tests showed 85.75MB of data compressing to 46.38MB after compression – you can read more about it here: https://developers.google.com/chrome/mobile/docs/data-compression).

The two main benefits of compression (and the use of SPDY, the speed optimised connection which is the basis for HTTP/2.0) for you and I are speed and lower data costs.  This is good news for the big companies who still haven’t sorted out even an entry level mobile site (surprisingly many still out there) and for site owners with responsive sites.

Data compression goes some of the way to solving the problem of file size of web pages that aren’t optimised for mobile, a problem which isn’t solved by responsive design alone because responsive only tends to mean big file sizes.  I think it’s interesting that Google thinks the problem is sufficient to warrant integrating compression into their browser.  Compressing all Chrome traffic through Google’s servers seems to be a significant undertaking.  Presumably Google thinks prohibitive download speeds and the data  costs (of large web page files) is going to persist over current cellular connections for a time yet.  4G will not solve this problem either for a long time yet – remember how long 3G took to become any good?

Apparently speed and lower data usage are considered enough of an incentive for someone to change mobile browser.  This begs a question – if this is enough motivation for Google to build compression into its browser, why isn’t it enough of a motivation for big companies to make their website file sizes small enough to give users a decent experience?

dolphin android browserI saw another piece of news last week about Dolphin’s mobile browser hitting 100m installs (on TechCrunch, here: http://techcrunch.com/2014/01/15/dolphin-labs/).

This got me thinking.  Website owners are facing a challenge at the moment.  How do they deliver a good experience to as many users as possible across as many smartphone, tablet and desktop devices as possible and keep it all up to date for a reasonable cost.  There are thousands of mobile devices and even more browser/device/Operating System combinations, with more being added every day.

Responsive solves one part of the problem – it allows you to keep your content up to date in one place and the site looks good – but at a significant cost to the user (slow mobile sites and data costs) and to your reach (people won’t stay on your site long enough to use it).

Alternatively, made for mobile solves a different part of the problem – the site will be quick and the display will be mobile optimised, but it is technically more challenging (as you need to recognise and know the capabilities of all devices), and depending on how you do it you may need to maintain different sets of content.

Transcoding and adaptive design are other options.

But one thing is clear – it’s getting more difficult, not easier.  Chrome’s compression helps (and the networks already do some compression), but Chrome is only one browser. We already have increasing device and operating system fragmentation, now it’s happening with browsers too.  Dolphin shows both the desktop and not the mobile sites of both Google and the BBC – both of whom are not behind the times.

A few conclusions:

1)      If you are doing anything serious online (i.e. your website is business critical), your digital provider needs to be extremely technically competent to keep up with all of this..  That applies whether it’s a digital agency or an in house team.

2)      You need resource.

3)      You need the right tech.

I can remember when web agencies sold their services in early 2000 – once companies had realised the opportunity presented.  One way to get interest was to point out to a website owner that their site only worked on IE, and that almost 10% of people didn’t use IE.  Back then that mattered – people would say ‘oh dear, you must come and meet me’ and in the absence of an agency that could contradict (typically the incumbent was an ad agency) the new agency often won the work.  Fast forward to today and the problem is 10 times as big – your mobile site doesn’t work on 2000 long tail mobile devices that you can buy in Tesco/asda/CEX/ebay/Amazon – yet nobody seems to care, because the problem is too big, because they don’t have the resources internally to solve the problem.

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