Last week I wrote a blog posting on the Swansea Learning Lab about the new-to-uk Amazon Kindle and a followup in Reflections about textbook availabilty and prices. I’ve actually been a long term subscriber to O’Reilly’s Safari Books online service (http://www.safaribooksonline.com/) , which for $42.99 (about £27) per month (which includes VAT), gives me access to the entire O’Reilly catalogue as well as many offerings from Addison Wesley, John Wiley and other familiar textbook publishers. Now $42.99 a month is not in the reach of students, but the “lite” offering of a 5 book “bookshelf” subscription for $9.99 might be. And of further interest is that as the books are made available on a web site and there is a mobile version m.safaribooksonline.com that works with mobiles and the Kindle.
On the theme of mobile web accessibility (#thereisawebappforthat) I did some more exploration of the BBC’s mobile (http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile) web site and discovered that there is a mobile version of iPlayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/iplayer which streams video in MP4 format suitable for the iPhone. Thus, I’d have to regrade the BBC’s mobile accessibility to A+ … providing that you enter the site from the root URL.
In the spirit of research, and because I teach some of this stuff, I dug a little deeper and discovered that if you visit the BBC with a conventional browser, the pages are returned using the XHTML 1.0 Strict doctype and stylesheets are provided for screen and print media with customizations for Internet Explorer 6.
On the mobile site, the doctype is the Wapforum proper subset of XHTML 1.0 (http://www.wapforum.org/DTD/xhtml-mobile10.dtd) and the default stylesheet is tuned for mobile. What we used to call WML and WAP in fact.
Given that there is no conditional code or alternate stylesheets in these pages, I conclude that the BBC web server does some “browser sniffing” on arrival and checks the User-Agent field in the HTTP request. If you arrive at the home page http://www.bbc.co.uk with a mobile you are redirected to the mobile version of the web site. If you arrive at certain parts of the mobile site where there is media, further filtering takes place and “if you’re not on the list, you’re not getting in”.
This strategy works well, and allows the BBC to provide the mobile introduction page http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/web/ if you arrive with a conventional browser at http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile. This page has an embedded mobile emulator and a link to http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/index.html/index.html if you insist on going further with a normal browser.
If you examine the URLs in the BBC website, you get a clue as to why linking to a page, say on the news site, in a Tweet might not work for all audiences. Let’s take today’s news article: Honeybees are ‘Cleverer in the Morning’.This is the kind of quirky news headline that I’m sure you’d want to tweet. Indeed, the BBC offers you a sharing button that offers this tweet:
BBC News – Honeybees ‘cleverer in the morning’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-10892913
Now, let’s say I receive this tweet on my twitter client (I used Tweetdeck, but Twitterific does the same thing) on my iPhone 3GS and I follow the link. The embedded browser loads the normal news page rather than the more appropriate http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/science-environment-10892913. The content is identical, but the doctypes, HTML headers and styleshets are different. The actual page (the one that was linked to remember) uses the conventional two column layout, rich navigational options and lots of white space and is tiny on a mobile on nomal (320 pixel wide (illustrated)) orientation and not much better at 460 pixel landscape orientation.
The mobile version stacks the headline, picture (smaller than the one on the main page), byline, article and navigation tools and is designed to work on small resoultion displays and looks great at even 320 pixels.
The fix is “simple”, expect your clients to reach your web sites from a referal rather than navigation, and do the browser sniffing and redirection everywhere, not just at the top level.
Of course, I write this from the comfortable position of a critic’s armchair. I don’t underestimate the technical problem of creating a fully accessible web site as large as the BBC’s, and they clearly have addressed many of the issues. There are just a couple of grey areas left.
There is a further complicating factor. As examination of the URLs will reveal, the BBC is not one website. It has many websites, spread out across many virtual directories and even across multiple domains (students read virtual hosts). Each one is presumably managed by separate teams and it must be quite difficult to achieve consistent and correct browser-based behaviour across them all. The BBC actually makes for a good case study for my students and I see an assignment coming on!
Interesting follow-up to yesterday’s mobile web accessibility post (#thereisawebappforthat).
When demonstrating mobile web page accessibility to my wife, I went direct to the BBC web site (http://www.bbc.co.uk). Interestingly, this page recognizes that I was using a mobile device and switched to a presentation suitable for a mobile (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/web/ for a live demo). Clicking through from here gets you to the news site http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/ and this is accessible to mobiles. The question is then why doesn’t a link to http://www.bbc.co.uk/news redirect you to the mobile version? Could it be a simple omission?
Incidentally, I wrote this post with the Flock “The Social Browser” blog post editor and the image was auto uploaded and shared from my Facebook account.
There should be a web app for that!
Earlier today I tweeted
A bit disappointed to be finding that major media outlets like the BBC make apps instead of making website mobile browser compatible.
After that outburst I felt some explanation was called for. I also felt a campaign coming on. So here goes.
But I hear you say, why is that important? Surely “there’s an app for that“! Well maybe there is, but consider this common scenario. You’re in your Twitter client on the mobile and you spot a link for an interesting news item on the BBC’s web site. What happens when you click the link? Does your Twitter client say “hey this guy’s got the BBC news app, we’ll use that to display this article”? No, it opens the browser either in the browser app or it uses the built-in browser to render the page in place.
And what gets rendered? The page as it would be rendered for a desktop or laptop machine, that’s what. A page designed to be displayed, in the case of the BBC, with a width of at least 976 pixels (I checked this dimension). A page for which its web designer has not considered accessibility on a screen with a of 480 pixels in landscape mode and only 320 pixels in upright mode.
Now the BBC news app is designed for the iPhone. It looks good and the navigation has been designed to work well on the smaller screen. It makes me wonder how many apps there are that are just customized browsers rather than accessible web sites designed to work well on hand held devices. I know that there are other reasons for having a customized app. Lack of flash on Apple devices forces content providers to provide an alternative. But even here, the widespread support of HTML5 video somewhat obviates even that need.
The Campaign: There Should be Webapp for That
I posit that Content providers should provide web sites that work well in normal browsers! Give us web apps that work better or provide more features by all means, but give us accessible access to the main website as well. (And let’s face it, that should include multimedia!) Let’s name and celebrate those that do and name and shame those that don’t.
Just to be fair, my own institution www.swan.ac.uk fails the test. It’s just about usable in landscape mode without zooming if you have very small fingers and very good eyesight. The same goes for the intranet, which we have control of, and the VLE which we don’t. Also, this blog, admittedly using a standard template, is not particularly accessible on the mobile.
With all that said here is the list of sites that I tried to get to from my Twitter client today that did and didn’t pass the accessibility test:
- C- BBC News. Frankly unusable without zooming (and video and audio, which is flash, doesn’t work either). There is a free app that overcomes these issues but it’s not callable from another app.
- A The Guardian. Excellent, recognizes your browser and redirects you automatically to m.gardian.co.uk. No video or crosswords though! The USP for The Guardian app is off-line browsing and access to multimedia — but still not the crosswords!
- D Scientific American. Looks like the standard web page and is unreadable in any orientation without zooming.
- A+ YouTube … I know that there’s a standard app for YouTube, but with browser access, the web site redirects you automatically to the mobile version m.youtube.com and videos work.
- A+ www.w3.org uses
@mediato switch to a low resolution version as you’d expect!
- A+ mashable.com uses
- B apple.com/iphone Surprisingly, this is not optimized for viewing on the iPhone 3GS. Page does seem less cluttered than some sites surveyed, but small print is still too small. Perhaps it looks better on the higher resolution iPhone 4. Video is Quicktime MP4 so it works with Apple’s browser as you’d expect.