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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Mobile web gears up for lift-off
By Jonathan Fildes
BBC News science and technology reporter in Edinburgh

Iranian woman using a mobiles phone
There are millions of mobile phone users worldwide
The rush to seize part of the burgeoning mobile internet market has started with the launch of a new domain name specifically for mobile devices.

The .mobi domain is aimed specifically at websites designed to be viewed on mobile phones.

The name was approved by internet regulatory body Icann last year but businesses have not been able to buy one until this week.

Companies like Yahoo and Microsoft have already purchased .mobi names.

However, the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, does not back the scheme.

"I wrote publicly [that] I thought the .mobi domain was a bad idea. I still do," he told a news conference at the WWW2006 conference in Edinburgh.

Although a supporter of the mobile web, he believes that efforts should focus on making existing content smart enough to be able to recognise what kind of device it is being viewed on, large or small.

Creating sites specifically for the small screen risks fragmenting the web, he argues.

"What's very important from my point of view and from the World Wide Web consortium's point of view is that there is just one web," he said.

Web to go

Backers of .mobi, like Daniel Appelquist, a senior technology strategist at Vodafone, believes both parties have the same goal in mind.

Today's mobiles have the processing power of yesterday's PCs
Sir David Brown, Motorola
"This is not about creating a separate mobile web," he told the BBC News website. "It is about making the web mobile."

At present there are more than two billion mobile phones in use around the world and this number is forecast to rise to 2.8 billion by the end of 2006.

"We have all of these phones but so far they have only really been used for text messaging and voice," said Ronan Cremin from mTLD, the registry for .mobi.

"That really underestimates the capabilities of the device."

Initial attempts to provide web services for phones, such as Wap, have failed to attract a large audience.

This has been partly due to a lack of agreed standards for how Wap pages should look or what domain names they should use.

In addition, when Wap was launched, most phones only had monochrome displays and did not support pictures, so could not recreate the look, feel or content of the web.

However that situation has now changed.

"Today's mobiles have the processing power of yesterday's PCs" Sir David Brown, chairman of mobile phone maker Motorola told the Edinburgh conference.

The great advantage of these devices "formerly known as the mobile phone," he said, was that they are the one device people carry around with them.

Mobile explosion

As prices tumble to below $15 for a handset, sales are expected to top the almost 100,000 phones already sold every hour worldwide.

As more people get connected around the world the rise in demand for mobile web services is expected to follow.

People using mobiles phones
Last year research company Ipsos found that more than a quarter of users browsed the internet on their mobile phones, and this number is expected to grow.

The new domain name is an attempt to make the mobile web experience more user-friendly before this explosion.

The .mobi group has been working with W3C, the organisation responsible for developing standards for web pages, of which Sir Tim is director.

This move does not signal a reverse of opinion from Sir Tim, but rather that if the domain is going ahead, he feels it is better to be involved in the process.

"We've agreed to differ" said Sir Tim.

Different presentation

The use of .mobi will indicate that a website will work on a mobile phone.

Companies that build a mobile site will be required to follow certain technical guidelines and recommended to follow others that have been developed by a W3C mobile web initiative over the last year.

".mobi is a trust mark," said Mr Cremin. "If a user sees a .mobi address, they know that it will work on their phone."

The resulting web pages will be noticeably different from those that are accessed on a PC, with reduced graphics and fewer choices.

"If you're on a phone, you are not sitting in front of a 19-inch monitor with a high speed connection," said Mr Cremin. "You don't want to see all of the options that a normal website has."

Supporters of the new domain are keen to stress that whether you view a website on a PC or a mobile device the experience will be "thematically consistent".

"You are essentially interacting with the same article, even though it may be a slightly different version or maybe a slightly different presentation," said Vodafone's Mr Appelquist, who also chaired the W3C working group that drew up the .mobi guidelines.

"This is the cornerstone of the idea."

This week saw the start of the first round of registration for companies like mobile phone operators to get their hands on a .mobi site.

From mid-June, trademark holders will be given the chance to register before the market is opened up in August to anyone who wants to create mobile site.

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