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The Million iPhone Question

Let me preface this by saying that I am pretty tired of talking about the iPhone. But given that Apple recently sold the one-millionth unit, it’s generating more buzz around the office than ever and I have no choice. I’ve spoken more about the iPhone to clients and colleagues alike in the past two months than anything else in the past five years. Most conversations are some variation of “well, this spells the end of mobile as we know it, right?” And my answer is generally, “This spells the end of ALL media as we know it—just not in the way you think.”

This article is part of Local Search Week here at Search Engine Land, a special look at local search marketing issues in the run-up to our SMX Local & Mobile conference next month.

This was on my mind last weekend as I waited in line at the Apple store to buy an iPhone as a surprise anniversary present for my husband. He owned one of the original Apple Newton PDAs and still has it proudly displayed on his desk at home, so the perfect gift was a foregone conclusion. Needless to say, he finds it highly suspect that I haven’t bought one for myself yet. He’s a devout Mac user (we are the only people we know who have purchased and actually use Apple TV) and he doesn’t buy my excuses about waiting for 3G or Flash support or wanting to see what Nokia does next. “You’re a mobile strategist” he insists, “You need one!”

This morning, on our train commute into the city, he snuck occasional, baffled glances away from the surface of his shiny new iPhone at me tapping away on my trusty Treo.

“Are you reading the NY Times mobile?” he ventured, “Cause you know, if you’d just get an iPhone, you could read the whole thing!”

And he has a point, I’ll agree. I could read the whole thing—but do I want to?

Because to me, that’s the big question. Just because I can do something doesn’t necessarily make it the best way to go. I could, for example, pack my entire wardrobe for a weekend away but I don’t—I pack the essentials. Point being, what I want—and how much of it—is really dictated by circumstance. And in the circumstances under which I’d use my iPhone over my laptop, I’m really not looking to read your annual report or 10-page technical brief. I’m looking for the smaller, more timely stuff—blogs, news, directions, that kind of thing. The snack-sized content, if you will, as opposed to the entrĂ©e.

Now I understand the appeal of having access to the whole site. Ninety percent of the sites I frequent don’t have a mobile version so I’m stuck with trying to view the full HTML site (completely futile) or going for the search engine transcoded experience (sad and frustrating). So yeah, the option to view the whole site is great—it’s just generally not what I want or need under the circumstances. I’d be much happier with the pertinent info and a stripped down interface that makes it easy to get to within a click or two. Because I don’t care what anyone says—five clicks is three too many on a mobile device. And that wax on, wax off, pinching thing that you have to do to zoom in and out on the iPhone? No where near as effective as you’ve been led to believe. A good 30 percent of your average website is either wasted space or superfluous content to begin with, so do I really need to see it? I don’t mind wading through all that on a bigger screen, but at 320×480? Less is more.

Basically, I don’t so much want my device to work better as for the content providers and search engines to work smarter. I think this is actually what everyone wants, whether they realize it or not. Content that’s easy to find, easy to get and easy to enjoy—and that’s relevant to my current circumstance. This is of course at odds with the whole “view the whole site” value proposition but I think the real value of the iPhone will end up being something completely different from what was originally intended and I would imagine Steve Jobs and Co. will be fine with that. That instead, it may be the catalyst that forces us to think differently about the user experience and to maybe, finally, abandon the one size fits all approach to serving content in favor of something a bit more tailored.

This is a very “blue skies” perspective to pin on one small device. But as web inventor Tim Berners-Lee himself pointed out, the concept of two separate webs—one mobile, one wireline—is divisive and contrary to the whole spirit of the internet. A smarter Web makes a lot more sense—one where the content provider—and search engine—take into account a whole string of criteria—the search terms you used, your device, your geo-location and even your past visits to create the best possible experience for you out of all the content it has to offer.

On the client side this is catching on quickly—I’ve seen more than one major brand in the past few months launch an iPhone version of their wireline site. One that takes advantage of the full Safari browser while presenting a refined interface and content that actually makes sense in the mobile context. And most offer you the option to view the full site as a secondary option, which is great—truly the best of both worlds. Many others have simply opted to redirect requests from an iPhone to their mobile site and I’ve yet to hear any complaints on this from the user perspective.

What will be really interesting though is to watch the way the search engines evolve their approach. As a rule, they are serving uniformly wireline search results to iPhone users but I suspect that over time, we’ll see mobile URLS start to appear on the SERPS. Because in the end, it’s all about the best user experience and that has a lot more to do with what the user wants than what the device can do. When we see it happen, we’ll know we’ve taken the first steps toward a more intuitive web.

Rachel Pasqua is Director of Mobile Marketing for iCrossing.

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