Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past ten years or so, you know that people can access the Internet through their cell phones or portable devices. While this is commonly known, most companies give little thought to how mobile Internet users will be able to access and view their web sites. But how many people are actually accessing the Internet on mobile devices? What do web sites look like on mobile devices? What web sites are people visiting on their mobile devices? Inquiring minds want to know.

As of September 2006, 19 percent of American Internet users were regularly accessing the Web with a mobile device. We’re slightly behind the European countries (with Germany and Italy weighing in at a whopping 34 percent), but the movement is gaining momentum, and with new products like the iPhone coming out, this number will only grow.

If you’re curious as to what your web site would look like through a mobile device, try this simulator:

Designing web sites for small screens is tricky. Imagine trying to design a corporate letterhead that would look good on a memo the size of a business card and you’ll get an idea of how different this is. Designing by web standards (as decided by the W3C) goes a long way in making web sites accessible to mobile devices, but the only way to guarantee your site will display as it was intended to on mobile devices is to design a separate site specifically for them.

Currently, web pages are coded in some variant of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), a scripting language developed for informational pages in the late ’80s. Together with CSS, which was developed in the mid ’90s, HTML was sufficient to build effective and aesthetically pleasing web sites, but it’s overkill for mobile devices. A new, streamlined and more structured scripting language was developed to code sites for mobile devices: WML (Wireless Markup Language). So not only do you need a different web site for people with mobile devices, you need to use a whole different coding language.

But really, the question we should be asking is this: Do you really need to develop for mobile devices? Studies show that 79 percent of mobile Internet users visit portal sites, such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN. These sites can provide content like movie show times, stock quotes, news briefs, local weather reports and a myriad of other things. Something serious, though, like searching for a college, would most likely be done from home on a real computer. However, the stats on mobile Internet users in Europe almost mirror those of computer Internet users, which may be a vision of things to come. So, for colleges marketing to North American audiences, the answer is: Not yet, but soon.

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Sarah Johnson

There are some great points here. I think with the prevalence of smart phones and other PDA type devices it could not hurt to have a WAP enabled website for users who may be looking for sites on the go that they can check out in depth at a later time.