Have you ever tried sharing your discovery of an amazing gadget, application, or website only to be met by blank stares? Or looked at like you had three heads? That’s how I felt in 2001 when I first got my hands on the latest Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), as they were known back then. A brand-spanking new Handspring Visor Deluxe with Sprint PCS Wireless Web Digital module (yeah, quite a mouthful, I know). At the time, it was the most amazing portable device I had ever owned since my first calculator watch. Technically, it was actually two devices, the PDA and the Sprint cell phone module that snapped in via the springboard expansion bay in the back of the PDA.
The Visor featured a 160×160, 4-bit gray-scale screen and a whopping 8MB of RAM. For its time, it was a slick electronic agenda, with the added benefit that you could install apps! (Ahem, sorry Apple, I meant “applications.”) By adding a cell phone module, this meant that not only phone calls were possible, but more importantly, I could surf the web, send and receive emails, and even chat online using AOL’s Instant Messenger client! At the time, to only me apparently, this was wild beyond belief. I could surf the net while standing outside the “computer room”, never mind outside the house. Sure, it wasn’t the fastest or slickest device by today standards, but it was a glimpse of where things might be headed in the future.
This device, capable of all these seemingly magical things, was my pride and joy. I basically became an unpaid spokesperson for Handspring. But curiously, the great majority of people I annoyed with my show-and-tell demonstrations did not share the same enthusiasm. I heard variations of the following:
“But it’s too big.”
“I already have a computer at home that I can do all that with.”
“Why would I want to use AOL Messenger outside?”
“But the pictures are not in color.”
And on and on.
The paradigm at the time was that people wanted the slickest, smallest cell phone possible. Computers were big-ticket items that one didn’t dare take outside the house, unless you really needed that laptop for business purposes. And even then laptops were a little too heavy to lug around for more than three steps. The way we consumed information on the Internet back then was a less actionable and harbored more of a curiosity factor for a lot of people. We just wanted to see pretty pictures. And that adorable Bonzi Buddy monkey.
The entertainment factor never went away and we have shifted from pictures to consuming video and socializing more, but a lot more today people log on to find answers to very specific problems. The Internet, as a whole, was more text-book like in regards to the information it contained rather than the specificity of the information you can now find with a simple search.
Truth is, there hadn’t been a shift in consciousness, yet, about HOW and WHERE we consumed information. Not unlike the underwhelming response from some people when the iPad first came out, only to watch other companies play catch up and race to make tablets of their own once it was clear information consumption habits had changed.
We are now quickly moving away from desktops, laptops, and even net-books and now rely more on our smartphones and tablets to consume the information that we need on the spot. A thought crosses our mind, a question, however trivial, and we can instantly look up the answer.
Why do I tell you all this? Because if you’re in the business of running a business online, HOW your customer/clients/fans are accessing your website content should be kind of a big deal to you.
According to StatCounter, a research firm, mobile Internet usage has gone from accounting for only 1.56% of all browsers (January 2010), to 4.30% in January 2011, and to 8.49% in January 2012, essentially doubling every year. This means that you not only have to be aware of how your content looks to your mobile-browsing readers, but be ready to reshape that content so that it can be easily consumed by the same readers. What I want to help you avoid is this:
There is nothing that puts a mobile-device user off quicker
than a slow-loading, cumbersome, hard-to-navigate website. Nothing.
They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. Fortunately, the issue of customizing your site for mobile access is totally avoidable and I’ll show you how to take care of it today, with very little hassle.
Now, there are different ways you can do this and it depends for the most part on what content you have to offer to mobile-browsing readers. You can:
A) Simplify the current theme you have so that it loads faster and cleaner on mobile browsers. If by simplifying you are forced to remove features that are essential to your readers, you’re better off looking at other options.
B) Hire a mobile hosting company to manage your mobile website as a separate entity. I like to manage my own stuff, but you may want to have someone else deal with that aspect of your site if the content goes beyond text, pictures and video.
C) Purchase and install a custom mobile theme for your site. While this may cost money it will give your site a more professional look and you can customize it just they way you want to. The downside is that there aren’t a huge number of theme options out there now and if you choose to go this route, you now have to support two themes concurrently. Take a look at FutureExpats.com growing list of customizable mobile themes.
D) Install a free WordPress Plugin that automatically detects mobile-browsers and formats content accordingly. This is the option I chose, since it suits my current needs. It doesn’t hurt that it’s free and allows time for more options to develop out there as the mobile market grows.
E) Switch to a Responsive Theme. These themes adjust to all screen sizes, providing a uniform experience across all devices. The way to go if you’re starting a site today.
WordPress Mobile Site Plugin Options
I installed a few of the mobile plugins to give you an idea of what they offer and how they look. These were tested in my iPod Touch, to simulate what they would look like if you were browsing on an iPhone OS 5.
1- WP Mobile Detector
I gave the free version of WP Mobile Detector a try first. It is supposedly smart enough to know the difference between a smart phone and a standard cell phone, however many of the latter are still around. There were no customization options in the free version. You simply activate and presto, instant mobile website.
The default mobile website for WP Mobile Detector is clean. Only the top post includes an excerpt (left image) and the rest of the posts are just referenced with headlines (center image). There were no options to include post images, which I’m sure is something you can customize when you buy the Pro version of the plugin.
One cool feature that I did like is that the title bar gives you a pull-down menu. This is great if your sidebar widgets are like mine and also include newsletter sign-up widget, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media widgets as well.
Not a bad option if you just need something quick while you hatch your plans for the greatest, most awesome mobile website ever.
2- WordPress Mobile Pack
At first, the page struck me as ugly and not too pleasing to the eyes (left image). But the more I played around with it, it began to grow on me. The theme was designed to do one thing, which is to give you the most accurate structure of the website, while removing all the fluff that might slow it down. This plugin does give you a LOT of options, including whether you want to break your posts into various pages for faster loading and options to include excerpts of your posts.
I really like how it kept my Facebook LIKE buttons intact. Another cool feature is that my newsletter sign-up widget was nicely integrated at the end of the post as an expandable form (center/right image).
If you think your website will be heavily accessed from less than capable smartphones or standard phones, or is geared towards countries where the newest phone technology has yet to catch up, I’d really consider this theme. It’s fast, simple, and gives your readers all they need and nothing they don’t.
When I tried the free WPTouch mobile plugin I knew I had a winner. The other two mobile solutions previously mentioned are great, don’t get me wrong, but I needed something with a little more style and WPTouch nails it in the looks department. The theme looks very nice and like it belongs on a smart phone, while at the same time scaling down the website to speed up loading and lower data download requirements.
I loved being able to attach the featured image corresponding to the post to ensure that the there’s brand consistency between the full-fledged website and the mobile version. Options for the plugin allow you to customize the colors and backgrounds as well to whatever you choose. The option to include the Favorites icon next to the title bar is a nice touch. By the way, if you need to create an iPhone style icon to upload to the theme, check out iconj.com for a quick and easy way icon generator.
The free version of WPTouch allows you to add your Twitter account below the heading (this requires installing the free WordTwit plugin). I wish there was an option to connect to Facebook as well, but this plugin does more than excellent for the price ($0) invested. Check out the Pro version of WPTouch if you need more customization options.
And that about wraps it up for getting started with mobile browsing. If you have tried any other plugins or have experienced using other mobile website solutions, drop me a line in the comments. I’d like to hear more about it.
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Also, check out my Pinterest page about Antigua Guatemala, one of the prettiest colonial cities in the world and my latest digital nomad destination I’m trying out.
* Top photo courtesy of meddygarnet