W3C Mobile OK checker and Mobile Web Best Practices – a bit outdated?

Image credit to learntoparent.org

With a few major brand websites not validating on W3C checker and not caring much about it, it seems that W3C validation is loosing its relevancy in the desktop web world.
What about the W3C MobileOK checker? Should mobile content publishers worry about their mobile pages validating against the W3C mobile standards? Does the W3C MobileOK compliance help insure the cross-device compatibility of the mobile content?

These questions have come up lately, and I’ve decided to write a blog post to help shed some light on this matter.

1. According to W3C.org website:

“Being mobileOK is neither a guarantee that the Web document may be rendered correctly by all mobile devices, nor an insurance that the user experience was correctly addressed.”

This statement is self-explanatory – just because the site validates, it doesn’t mean it looks good or functions correctly across the mobile devices. By no means treat MobileOK as any form of device compatibility assurance.

2. The way the MobileOK checker works is it verifies against the set of tests that are derived from the Mobile Web Best Practices that were published in July 2008 – just a year after the first iPhone was released. According to some sources, the Mobile Web Best Practices were finalized even earlier – in July 2007.
Needless to say, the smartphone technology as well as wireless data access have improved tremendously since then (and with that – the user expectations regarding the richness of the mobile experiences). Since most of us in North America get a new phone with the contract renewal every two years, the vast majority of us have gone through a few phone generation changes since the tests that govern the current W3C MobileOK checker were established.

The relevancy of pre-iPhone mobile web standards in 2012 is questionable, at best.

3. MobileOK standards are based on a concept called DDC (“Default Delivery Context”) – an abstract (non-existent) mobile browser that in its capacities is generations behind what modern smartphone browsers can do. From W3C website:

The Default Delivery Context has been determined by the BPWG as being the minimum delivery context specification necessary for a reasonable experience of the Web (in 2008).

Interestingly enough, W3C recognized the DDC limitations and has encouraged content providers to develop based on the capabilities of the actual devices, not the DDC limitations:

It is stressed that many devices exceed the capabilities defined by the DDC. Content providers are encouraged not to diminish the user experience on those devices by developing only to the DDC specification, and are encouraged to adapt their content, where appropriate, to exploit the capabilities of the actual device

What this basically means is that W3C itself is telling us not to worry about MobileOK checker, as long as the devices support what you are doing.

4. Let’s take a look at a specific example. I’ve taken a site that has been tested on most smart phones (as part of the development process and also over the course of several months of being live as part of a heavy volume marketing project). The site looks and functions great on smart phones, however it gets a very low score with the W3C MobileOK checker.  Here is a list of “issues” found by checker:

  • (Critical) “The total size of the page (166.8KB) exceeds 20 kilobytes”
    According to Mobile Web Best Practices the total size of the mobile page should be under 20KB – a limitation that certainly helps no one in 2012. First, the connection speed has improved dramatically, with most carriers competing on and heavily innovating in the data speed fronts. Second, one good resolution image would easily exceed the 20kb size. In the last few years we’ve seen impressive innovations in smart phone screen resolution, with Samsung Galaxy S3 packing a whopping 1280×720 screen. High res screen users want high res and good quality content which you simply cannot do with under 20KB limit. Needless to say, mobile videos are completely out of the questions.
  • (Critical) “A usemap attribute is present”. The “Why” explanation offered by MobileOK checker states the following: “Image maps assume that the user will click on a specific area of an image, which is not possible on many mobile devices.” Really? I am pretty sure mobile users are absolutely capable of tapping on any specific area of an image or page.
    Now, let’s look at the W3C’s explanation of why an imagemap cannot be used on a mobile web page:
    Image maps allow fast navigation providing the requesting device can support the image involved and providing there is a means of navigating the map satisfactorily. Up, down, left, right and enter are available on most mobile devices, even if there is no pointing device. ”
    A pointing device? Up and down arrows? This is clearly coming from the old blackberry and pre-iPhone days, before the concept of a touchscreen on a phone existed.

    And here is a disclaimer from the Mobile Web Best Practices, section 5.2.7:
    [IMAGE_MAPS] Do not use image maps unless you know the device supports them effectively.
    I am pretty sure that in 2012 mobile users can tap on a specific area of the image without having to hit any up and down arrows or use any archaic pointing devices. We should be safe to assume that the mobile devices “support [image maps] effectively”, and there’s no need to scare anyone with a critical issue warning.

  • “The embedded image or object is not of type image/gif or image/jpeg (image/png)”. A mobile page that was tested against MobileOK contained a PNG image, and the Mobile Web Best Practices does not support PNGs!
    PNG images have been around for quite a while and are used for cool user interface effects like transparent images (an image with no visible background that you can lay over another image or background). If you’ve seen icons with rounded corners, you’ve probably looked at transparent PNGs. Yet – no W3C approval on that.

  • “The document uses scripting”. Client-side scripts (Javascript) are needed for animation effects, mobile form validation (e.g. “Please enter your email address before submitting the form”), 3rd party plugins, things like Facebook Like Box or visitor tracking). It would take real creativity to develop a functional modern website without scripting. Yet, scripting is not supported by MobileOK checker.

The bottom line is, the standards that come with the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices are rather archaic. Treating these standards seriously may require that you take your mobile visitors and users to the pre-iPhone days, without any guarantee of the content actually working across all devices. What are the benefits?

Please chime in with feedback!

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About Elena English

Mobile afficionado and tech entrepreneur. Google+ | Quora | LinkedIn
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