Gadget freaks can finally drop their US$500 to $600 on the long-awaited iPhone. One of the largest product launches in electronics history, the sleek device has stirred huge expectations among consumers — higher, certainly, than for standard cell phones you get for free with a two-year agreement. After all, the iPhone is “the Internet in your pocket” combined with an iPod and, of course, a phone.
Notwithstanding the clever finger-flicked interface and general engineering triumph, the iPhone could turn out to be a colossal disappointment. The iPhone experience is a delicate one, hinging not only on the network the device is connected to at a given instant, but on the Web sites and applications the iPhone is hitting.
The network issues are well-documented. When the phones are using the EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution) network, they’re slow. On WiFi they crank. The dirty little secret, however, is on the interface side: Although the iPhone’s “viewport” displays what appear to be regular Web sites — not stripped-down wireless versions — Web site owners need to optimize their sites for the iPhone so they deliver the same high-quality experiences that Mac and PC users enjoy. If this doesn’t happen, the iPhone could be the next Newton.
Although the iPhone carries a Safari browser, there are a few things that are important to know. First, the fact that a Web site works in a popular browser such as Internet Explorer or even Apple’s standard Safari browser is no guarantee that the site will work well on the iPhone. There’s even a chance the site won’t work at all. The iPhone’s browser is a special version of Safari just for the iPhone. It lacks, for example, support for Flash and Java, technologies heavily used on business Web sites.
Second, it has portrait and landscape modes offering two very different experiences of the same Web site. Third, iPhone users are often looking at less of a Web page than they would on a desktop computer — they will be doing a lot of zooming in and out. Fourth, the iPhone lacks the processing power of a desktop, meaning rich applications like those made in Ajax (which the iPhone does support) will challenge the device.
Fifth, users lack precision input control because their input tool is a finger, not a mouse. Sixth, the iPhone examines Web pages for carefully sized blocks that fill the screen when finger-tapped (that’s the zooming effect). Seventh, forms are tricky because they don’t always automatically summon the iPhone virtual keyboard.
Do It Sooner, Not Later
Complicating matters is the fact that when the keyboard is summoned for forms, it consumes useful window real estate. Finally, traditional Web optimization techniques — like “connection parallelism,” or feigning multiple hosts to accelerate downloading over broadband connections — would potentially degrade iPhone performance when connected via the EDGE network. (Fortunately, if you know which network they’re using, you can divert users accordingly.)
As is becoming obvious, the iPhone experience will be a unique one from both the user and Web development perspectives. E-commerce executives will want to make their Web sites iPhone-friendly sooner rather than later, since people buying the iPhone — well-heeled early adopters — are by definition high-value potential customers for most businesses.
Organizations that want to sell to iPhone users will need to make a few obvious changes right off the bat. They’ll need to design their sites in blocks, and keep them small enough to make zoomed text readable on the iPhone. They’ll have to keep links far enough apart from one another to make them “clickable” with a fat finger. They’ll have to deal with forms that aren’t summoning the iPhone virtual keyboard or obscuring important content.
That’s just for starters. To fully capitalize on the iPhone user base, e-commerce executives need a way to systematically evaluate the iPhone user experience on their sites and quickly identify areas that need to be fixed. Specifically, they need real-time data detailing:
- how many iPhones are hitting their sites;
- which are on EDGE and which are on WiFi;
- performance, including response time, site availability, transaction availability and consistency;
- perceived performance (Have objects in the visible portion of the page loaded at least?);
- the user experience for both landscape and portrait modes;
- pages/transactions most often abandoned;
- overall visitor satisfaction; and
- the business impact of any performance problems.
E-commerce executives need to track this information by user domain, customer segment (e.g., silver, gold and platinum), geography and connection type. They need to see which Web applications are working, which are not, what content is visible in real users’ viewports and what is typically off-screen. They need to see how Ajax — the Steve Jobs-mandated approach for third-party applications — is performing for EDGE and WiFi users. They need to gauge the impact of factors like zoom settings and first-time/repeat visitor status.
When they have all this information, e-commerce executives need to go one important step further and analyze how these performance variables are affecting their business results through dashboards that track business processes like online sales conversion or shopping cart abandonment. Users need to be able to drill down for in-depth data on what may be responsible for a problem, and then quickly resolve it. Before deploying a revised or new page or transaction, developers need to see it work on the iPhone platform and load-test it.
Either way, with a comprehensive iPhone optimization strategy, e-commerce executives and Web developers can take control of the entire iPhone application experience and, for those who care, support the success of the device. Then e-commerce executives can sit back and — like gadget freaks everywhere — start anticipating the next generation of the iPhone.
Imad Mouline is chief technology officer of Gomez, a provider of Web application experience management solutions.