mobile internet usage/usability.

An article in today’s Campus Technology cites a comScore research study showing that mobile broadband use is growing rapidly – their figures show a “154 percent in the 4th quarter of 2007 versus the same period in 2006,” accounting for about 2 million users in 2007 versus around 900,000 in 2006. Competition among mobile providers and advances in the cell phone / pocket PC technology are making it easier and more affordable for typical consumers to access the internet via their cellphones and PDAs, but the experience of mobile browsing is apparently not blowing most users out of the water. Rather, poor usability often makes them “abandon” the technology and rely on other means of accessing the internet.

My sense is that because the vast majority of cell phone users still own more traditional models accessing anything but basic online services is an experience akin to using the web in 1997 or so – sketchy, irritating, and slow. The aesthetic and experiential expectations of the typical web user have become so keen that all but the most advanced mobile browsing seems rudimentary at best and frustrating at worst. Among other things, the lack of standardization among browsers and displays makes designing mobile online experiences a true challenge.

A recent library technology survey I was involved in administering shows only about 6% of our students own a “smartphone” such as a Treo or an iPhone while 95% overall own a cell. The majority of these phones feature some sort of internet connectivity, meaning that the mobile browsing market is absurdly well established considering its underutilization – whether they are aware of it yet or not, consumers are essentially waiting for technology to catch up and the market to make access more affordable.

Based on our survey results student interest in using a mobile library web service is currently tepid, while response to potential text messaging services we’re thinking of investigating (text reference and circulation/ renewal messages, among others) got a much more enthusiastic response. The lukewarm reception of a mobile library interface is probably in part due to the fact that most students use their phones as browsers rarely if ever, maybe to access email or a forecast once in a while. My hope is that as technology improves access and experience, perceptions that such services are valuable are likely to improve in kind. As such, I think mobile service provision is one of the areas libraries should be aggressively investigating in order to provide user-responsive access options. Library integration with web-enabled e-readers such as the Kindle is another potential application of this type of service, and one that will be extremely important for the future distribution of digitized content. I’m interested to hear about the experiences of library systems who have already created mobile web interfaces…

For further reading, Smallsurfaces offers regular insights into mobile web design.

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  1. I agree that libraries need to be paying more attention to mobile and that most students aren’t quite there yet due to the tech they have in their hands. The other major hurdle is mobile broadband speeds. Athens has decent coverage with Sprint, but New Concord is still stuck with 50 Kbps. Hopefully the outcome of the 700Mhz auction will solve all of our problems. 😉

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