Journal: News & Comment

Sunday, April 11, 2004
# 12:05:00 AM:

Designing for the small screen

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The late, lamented Webmonkey posted an excellent article by Heidi Pollock about designing websites for small screens (thanks, Miraz), such as those on web phones, PDAs, and other such devices.

Back in the day, circa 1998, when I was a year or so into building websites, I tried my hand at coding pages for WAP phones and handhelds. It sucked. No, let me rephrase that: it suuuuuuuucked. There was no way to predict how different devices would display pages, the limitations on even the amount of text were insanely low (even for the very limited memory and screens of mobile phones), and trying to get resources to test the results was a joke.

The bad: Pollock reveals that little has changed in some regards:

The number of devices, screen sizes, operating platforms, and support levels for small-screen browsing is mind-numbing. While doing the research for this article, I actually walked away from my computer right in the middle of my umpteenth developer guideline PDF download, hopped in my car, picked up a bottle of wine, three DVDs, returned home, and crawled into bed. That's how bad it is.

The good: Mobile small-screen browsers today understand standard extensible hypertext markup language (XHTML) and cascading style sheets (CSS), at least to some degree, so if you create pages using those technologies for regular desktop and laptop computers, and do it right, those pages may Just Work on many small-screen devices:

It requires you to separate your content from your design and use CSS the way it was meant to be used. Finally. Right now you may or may not be concerned with the small-screen audience, but someday soon your audience will be browsing over television and voice connections, so you might as well buckle down, once and for all, and learn to separate your data from your formatting.

My site here doesn't quite use its stylesheets in that elegant a way, but I was quite surprised last year when I had chance to use Palm's wireless Tungsten C handheld and its built-in browser. It displayed these pages just fine on a screen of only 320x320 pixels. That screen, by the way, remains the best PDA display I have ever seen.

So, if you build pages using modern web standards, and especially if you set up a separate, minimalist stylesheet for small screens, you have a pretty good chance of giving people a good experience surfing on a phone or PDA. Hallelujah.

Incidentally, it was a sunny 27°C on our back porch last afternoon, I could go to the grocery store at 9:30 p.m. in a T-shirt and shorts, and it's not even mid-April. While I did write some entries in this journal and take some time looking at a computer screen, I spent a good chunk of the day with my daughters in the back yard. That's as it should be. If you're in Vancouver reading this, get yourself outside. If you're reading this wirelessly outside, put the computer down. Run around a bit. It's good for you.


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