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On Mobile, Nobody Knows You're A Dog

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h1There's just one platform now—the Internet—and it’s foolish to discriminate by device.

Owen Thomas, ReadWrite

It's time to start living in the mobile moment. With more mobile devices—smartphones and tablets—in use than PCs, we need to stop thinking about separate mobile experiences. Instead, we need to create experiences that are right for the user.

As Flurry CEO Simon Khalaf pointed out in a recent ReadWriteMix interview, media and entertainment are some of the fastest-growing categories in mobile. And yet those experiences are weirdly fractured, depending on what device you’re using. Look at Hulu, which may or may not charge you to watch a TV show, depending on the operating system you run, or Vevo's insistence that you use its app if you want to watch a video on mobile. And look at the crazy quilt of mobile websites and apps big publishers use.

Dogging The Desktop

In 1993, a New Yorker cartoon famously pointed out, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Let's update that: Today, on mobile, nobody knows you’re a dog. Or rather, nobody knows if you're a desktop dog or a mobile dog.

Yet we live in a frothy sea of redirects and mobile-“optimized” websites. Try getting a link for a news article you want to share: Sure enough, you're sending the mobile version to your friend who's on a desktop. Or vice versa. It's a mess, and we need to stop.

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Why is this so hard? We spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out if a user’s on a so-called “desktop” device—an old-fashioned PC—or a mobile device. What if we just let that go and figured everyone was using a screen connected to the Internet?

Videos and music are tangled up in old contracts, where the hope was to get users to pay separately for each platform, the way we upgraded from VHS to DVD and cassettes to CDs. But there's just one platform now—the Internet—and it’s foolish to discriminate by device.

Mobile Will Win

It's clear that usage is going overwhelmingly to mobile devices. Desktop devices will stay in use, of course—I’m typing this on a keyboard connected to a laptop connected to a big monitor. But increasingly, we should think about the simplified, functional, and clean experiences we design for mobile as the default for all devices. Polar, the maker of an online polling app, has the right approach: For its desktop website, it scaled its mobile app up without adding a lot of visual junk to the screen. (Designers: White space is your friend.)

Increasingly, publishers will find it's better to strip out excess and pare down the reading experience to the bare minimum. Why include a lot of links that never get clicked just to make some obscure department feel good about itself? A data-driven approach to product design should force hard decisions and eliminate the kind of political compromise that used to drive the design of homepages.

For a while, mobile was liberating to designers. Look how Facebook and LinkedIn reinvented their cluttered desktop products for mobile. Those Web giants are now starting to bring elements of pared-down mobile design back to the desktop. That’s the future: Getting the experience right, and taking it to every screen on the Internet.

And is that screen “mobile” or “desktop"? You might as well worry about whether your user has fleas.

Owen Thomas is is the editor-in-chief of ReadWrite. Follow him on Twitter @owenthomas.

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