A note on the meaning of "mobile" and relationship to the Webmob Charter


The term "mobile" is used both in the name of the Webmob IG and widely used in the Mission Statement and Scope sections of its Charter. Specifically the mission statement states that the purpose of the group is to accelerate the development of Web technology so that it becomes a compelling platform for mobile applications and the obvious choice for cross platform development.

The term is overloaded with many meanings and presumptions. While use of the term mobile is "broadly speaking" understandable to a wide and non-specialist audience, for a more specialist audience it might convey that we confine our attention to devices that are portable - or might further indicate that we are only interested in devices that can be used in motion. Neither is the case. In any case it sparks debate about which devices are mobile and which are not.

The purpose of this position paper is to clarify how the Webmob IG interprets mobile in order to clarify its charter and its scope of interest. A specific further point is that the scope of Webmob is not determined by device properties, but is concerned with the contexts in which people use products and services delivered using Web technology.


Historically, there was a meaningful distinction between the two prevalent classes of devices capable of providing a Web experience - desktop and laptop devices on the one hand, and mobile phones on the other. The extreme disparity in capability between those classes of devices and the connectivity available to them informed ideas and guidance as to "Good Practice". In pursuit of this, distinct user experiences emerged. Successful delivery of a Web experience on mobile (creation of a Functional User Experience or better) was, at that point, reasonably considered to be a distinct competence, requiring specialist skills and knowledge. The concept of "The Mobile Web" had some tangibility as meaning some district or neighbourhood of the Web in which people using mobile phones might get a meaningful or useful experience.

As time progressed, and as more connected device types emerged, the term mobile came to mean "use in a context other than sitting at a desk". Such contexts included use of devices such as kiosks (which are literally immobile), set top boxes, connected TVs, wearables, tablets, interactive displays and everything else through which the Web may be perceived and interacted with.

Today, the capabilities of devices and networks have advanced considerably. The prevalence of access to the Web using this wide variety of devices and access paths has grown to the point where traditional mainstream access contexts (desktop, laptop) form the minority of accesses to some products and services.

This change means that focus on "dealing with diversity" is now a mainstream concern. Approaches to dealing with some aspects of that diversity have become mainstream, especially Responsive Design. Earlier focus on implementation deficiencies is much less of a concern.

It's about the user, not the device

Dealing with differences in display capabilities and the visual appearance of content is important, but only part of the picture. More generally speaking, the device in use is part of the user context, but only one part of it.

A focus of our work and a chartered deliverable Multi-device and cross-device user experiences on the Web makes it clear that we consider a specific part of what we are doing is to consider the already common phenomenon of the same Web product or service being perceived by the same person using two, three or more devices. It is very likely that in developed economies at least one of those devices is a desktop computer, historically to be considered a contrast to mobile, rather than part of it. However, by reference to cross-device experiences it seems sensible to look at the experience of perceiving the Web when seated at a desk not as a distinct experience but one which falls into a spectrum or range of contexts of use, albeit at an extreme end of some of the properties we may use to describe that context.

Properties of the Contextual Experience

It might be argued that in that sense mobile means 'everything' and therefore 'nothing'. However, that's only true when you're looking for mobile to mean a distinction between devices. In reality, from the perspective of the IG, mobile is actually a code word for being aware of and distinguishing properties of the various delivery contexts, with the objective of improving a user's experience of perceiving the Web in a range of contexts.

Specifically, we are interested in the ability of a user to achieve a task or goal, using the Web in a wide variety of contexts. A users engagement may continue while the context changes in both gradual and abrupt ways. Gradual, such as the change in ambient light, abrupt such as switching from using a mobile phone to using a desktop computer on reaching home or office.

Some properties of the delivery context which can and do change and which vary considerably between contexts:

Given the wide range of properties and broad range of possible values of those properties the IG doesn't fee that it is very useful to single out particular combinations of properties for specific mention. It might be argued that desktop deserves special mention as a device that has serious limitations compared with the inherent advantages of devices that can be used effectively in a broad range of contexts. Desktop may be strong, but it's rather stupid.

The Mobile Web

Given the characterisation above, it's reasonable to ask how the group interprets the term "Mobile Web".

In short, the IG prefers not to use the term in its own work, but interprets it as meaning "The Web as perceived or as optimised for delivery in a varying range of contexts" distinguished inter alia by the properties described above.

Given the above discussion of "mobile means everything" the Mobile Web is no different to "One Web": making, as far as is reasonable, the same information and services available to users irrespective of the device they are using. However, it does not mean that exactly the same information is available in exactly the same representation across all devices. The context of mobile use, device capability variations, bandwidth issues and mobile network capabilities all affect the representation. Furthermore, some services and information are more suitable for and targeted at particular user contexts.

Alternatives to the word "mobile"

Since the IG understands that mobile can be construed as misleading it might consider adopting a different term for "considering the user context". We choose the word mobile, because for now it conveys enough about what we mean to demand limited explanation to a non-specialist audience. We await the arrival of a deeper understanding of the nature of and importance of the user's context, and ability to measure it, perhaps, before co-opting a term such as "Contextual Web", which while precise would today be incomprehensible.

Relationship to other W3C Activities

There is some overlap with other activities within the W3C. Accessibility also concerns itself with the capabilities of the user and the nature of the user's perception of the Web. Internationalisation concerns itself with the language abilities of the user and to some degree their location.