The Obsolescence of Handheld Style Sheets?

Posted July 9th, 2007 by Mike Cherim

On any fixed-width designs I currently create I offer a handheld style sheet for those users who may access these sites via a smart phone or other handheld device. I feel this is needed in this day and age; I want to make sure those skinny screen users have decent experience on my sites and find it accessible and usable. But will this need become less important, even unnecessary in a few years?

Enter Apple’s iPhone and another possible wave of change. Based on the iPhone Internet demo, the iPhone gives users the capability to browse web sites and get the content delivered in all its screen-media glory (using the Safari web browser). Users can control the display — or portions thereof via zooming — by touch screen control (tapping) and orientation. I haven’t tested this, and I can’t comment on its usability and accessibility, but it sure looks cool. So cool it could catch on and end up being the new standard. If this happens, the need for handheld style sheets may no longer exist.

It’s not that far fetched. Apple has long been an industry leader, great innovator, and trend setter. I think it’s a valid possibility — unless it’s just wishful thinking. You see, I hope it does catch on and the need for handheld style sheets goes bye-bye. At which time, of course, I will tip my hat to Apple for leading the handheld manufacturers’ industry into taking some of the responsibility for a site’s rendering off the developer’s shoulders. We’ll have one less thing to do.

Does anyone know how accessible and usable the iPhone is and how it compares in these areas to similar small-screen handheld user agents.

8 Responses to: “The Obsolescence of Handheld Style Sheets?”

  1. Scott responds:
    Posted: July 9th, 2007 at 4:50 am

    I currently use a Nokia E65 phone with (what I’d say) a similar browser as the iPhone browser. I find that it has no problem with downloading web pages and render the CSS stylesheet correctly (and probably does it better than IE). When I first got the phone, I was actually quite surprised at how easy it was to browse pages with just a few keys. I’ve also been hearing good things about Opera Mini 4 as well, so I would say good mobile browsing experience isn’t exactly started by the iPhone.

    On the bigger sites like Google, the server just picks up my user agent and forwards me to the mobile site which I find quite nice (especially for the data bill). The issue here is that other complex sites tend to have large download sizes (>300kb) and it can be painfully slow if you’re on a slower mobile network.

  2. TyzMedia responds:
    Posted: July 9th, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Thanks Mike, you’ve got me looking into zoom layouts for standard pc browser websites now.
    The iPhone functionality is intriguing to say the least, all of that ease of zooming stuff and scrolling looks sweet.
    The same people who have iPhones, might be the same ones who would say it is annoying on a regular webpage… go figure.

  3. Megan responds:
    Posted: July 9th, 2007 at 10:21 am

    I don’t use mobile browsers either (not a cellphone person), but from what I understand Opera Mini has been a big innovator in this area as well. If you use Opera desktop you can see the mobile view by pressing shift+F11. You can see that they make some modifications to the page to get it to work on a small screen (where there is no handheld stylesheet available). I think we ought to give Opera some credit from taking responsibility for the site display :)
    Apparently the new version offers similar functionality to the iPhone.

    This does put us in a weird position - if the browsers are making changes, or if they can display a regular stylesheet, then do we need to bother with the handheld? How do we know which devices will use the regular stylesheet and which will use the handheld?

  4. Stevie D responds:
    Posted: July 12th, 2007 at 7:59 am

    Check this out: iPhone Tester! Don’t know how good it is.

    It’s not doing owt for me. On IE6, it is just like making the window really small, it doesn’t do anything more than that. Maybe it needs a better browser to work - I’ll check that out when I get home later. Not a patch on Opera’s SSR though.

  5. Virginia responds:
    Posted: July 12th, 2007 at 9:20 am

    I had exactly the same thoughts myself. Here’s my thinking. Many high-end devices such as iPhone and Blackberry do just fine with no handheld CSS. Those low-end devices that really need some help with many web pages don’t benefit from handheld CSS because the devices don’t understand CSS. So right now there is a middle range of users who might get some good out of handheld CSS. I agree that devices like iPhone are setting a new standard in the market and will reduce the number of those middle range devices over time.

  6. Rahul Gonsalves responds:
    Posted: July 18th, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    I think that designing for the mobile web requires more than a quick fix for handheld owners. As web designers/developers, we need to recognise that people using handheld devices have different needs, capabilities and priorities from those sitting behind a desktop with a broadband connection. Cameron Moll explores these themes in his three part series, here.

    For example, a user going to the local restaurant’s website from a mobile device is likely to want to have a menu, timings and a phone number accessible immediately, while she would perhaps enjoy reading the chef’s blog from behind her laptop at home.

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