The decision to optimise a site for mobile or build a full mobile site that works on all handsets has always been a tricky one for marketers.

Mobile specialists have tended to opt for creating a ‘full’ mobile site that works on all handsets but with times changing, could the days of the 'mobile only' web developers be numbered?

I’m not a massive fan of the “X vs.Y” school of thought. We see it all the time in mobile with “web vs. apps” and “iOS vs. Android” stories.

It’s a fairly lazy, yet effective, way of generating tweets and comments. However, there is one less well publicised area where a true battle is breaking out.

The 'web developers vs. mobile web developers' debate

Anyone acquainted with mobile will know that up until quite recently, most of the big web agencies ignored mobile as a communications channel. As a result, a number of specialist mobile web development companies sprang up to meet growing demand.

They subsequently built some excellent platforms, serving 'best possible' web pages on thousands of devices from lowly feature phones through to high end smartphones.

This became the solution of choice for those of us keen to provide all mobile users with a good user experience. So far so good for the mobile companies.

The problem is that these platforms now look as if they are built on a somewhat shaky foundation. They assume that we need to make our sites work on all handsets. We don’t. When the majority of the population didn’t have smartphones it was essential to make sure your site worked on all handsets.

The mobile companies would smugly point out that they would provide 'best possible on every phone and that normal sites didn’t work because they used tables or the page load was too high.

They were right because the stats showed that a significant number of feature phone users still accessed the web through these devices.

The problem is that, more and more, I research mobile ownership for our clients using comScore, which reveals that 65%, 75% or 80% of their particular target audience have smartphones.

Additionally, I very safely predict that by January more than 50% of UK phones will be smartphones. Why then, should we pay big bucks for a specialist solution when talented web developers can make one site work across multiple devices/platforms, including PCs, with all the attendant cost savings?

Clearly there are differences of context, navigation, file size and so on, but all these have solutions that can work on decent phones. It’s still not the right solution for all situations, such as targeting the very elderly or financially challenged, but it’s definitely heading that way very rapidly indeed.

What about those people who still have feature phones?

Well, to put it bluntly, in many cases, you can just throw them out of the equation. Is there much point in advising clients to spend money on people who won’t visit the pages?

Smartphones are not the preserve of rich marketers anymore so many people who are likely to interact via mobile are likely to have already upgraded. As this continues apace, will we be better off spending the cash on a better smartphone experience?

We need to accept that cheap smartphones are likely to kill off feature phones much faster than previously thought in many markets and that traditional web companies will then step up to the plate with “device agnostic” digital approaches that actually make sense.

Where does that leave all those lovingly crafted, device detecting, image re-purposing mobile only solutions and the companies who develop and run them?

Douglas McDonald

Published 21 December, 2011 by Douglas McDonald

Douglas McDonald is Director of Mobile and Connected Consumer at TMW and a contributor to Econsultancy.

2 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (9)

Save or Cancel

David Boddington

I've also thought for a while (even getting so far as half writing my own blog post) that the position of the likes of Wapple, Netbiscuits as they currnelty exist et al is endangered (at least in advanced mobile markets) and I (90%) agree with your post.

As you say, the significant change in the last 2-3 years has been the proliferation of more capable devices, and importantly the browsers that they run (significantly running WebKit). Before that, even the majority of "tech leaders" had what we would nowadays call a clever dumbphone at best. Less capable devices doing the browsing meant that the effort, to ensure that the content to be rendered on device was appropriate and didn't require any work on the part of the mobile browser, had to be managed server-side. These days, the browsers and processing power of devices running them, paired with better network data speeds and WiFi mean that approaches that leverage HTML5, jQuery etc. are more appropriate.

Again, to repeat your point, featurephones are not doing much browsing. And if they are, they're not doing much purchasing/interacting etc.

But, and this is where I depart a little bit from your view, does that mean that you don't need to consider or build specifically for mobile. With consideration, a broad all-encompassing approach such as adaptive web design may be appropriate but in many (most?) cases, the user experience for a mobile user will need to be different to a desktop browser and so there is likely to be the need to be a dedicated mobile web site built.

That said, these can be a one-off build, in much the same way as a desktop web site and not require an "all devices supported" mobile web platform that will often require a "lowest common denominator" approach and so not allow you to capitalise on the capabilities of the smartest devices that are out there.


over 6 years ago


Ronan Cremin

85% of the Alexa top 100 sites use device detection, but maybe they're all doing it wrong?

over 6 years ago


Daniel Anderson


Yeah they are.....IMHO

over 6 years ago


Paul Harrison

The problem with designing just one site assuming all users can access it is that the vast majority of modern smartphone users may well have phones capable of high speed downloads but they do not have networks capable of downloading fast. Its ok if you live in a big city, but over half of the UK does not.
Google has simple but effective guidelines for defining a mobile friendly site:
1.It needs to download in under 5 seconds
2.The user should not need to scroll in any direction to view the page (vertical scrolling is allowed but horizontal is definitely not)
3.The user should not need to zoom to view the text
4.Contact details should be clearly seen on the home page
5.Ideally there should be a "tap to call" button, which is mobile specific technology.
The vast majority of "mobile optimised" normal sites do not meet all these guidelines, as it is very difficult for both [2] and [3] to be achieved at the same time if the site is not mobile only.
Why should you be worried if the site does not meet these guideline? Simply because Google have recently stated they will penalise sites that do not and they are already penalising advertisers whose sites do not.
So perhaps the mobile specialists day is only just beginning rather than coming to an end.


over 6 years ago

Douglas McDonald

Douglas McDonald, Director of Mobile and Connected Consumer at TMW

@David Thanks for your comment. I think I may have not made that clear... I am not suggesting that you can just display the fixed line version with a few tweaks. When I say that there are "differences of context, navigation, file size and so on" that need to be addressed, what I mean is that these will lead towards a site that displays as a good quality, highly usable, mobile site. In effect, a completely different site focused on mobile users (or tablets users, smart TV users etc.). I think we agree overall?

@Ronan When I say "device detection" I mean granular detection that goes down as far as individual handsets, firmware versions etc. so that the platform can genuinely cater, specifically, for 80% to 90%+ of devices that hit the platform. I find it unlikely that 85% of those top Alexa sites do that and then display a customised mobile version for each handset type. I would also imagine that the vast majority do not have a mobile site at all. It would be great to see more numbers if you have them.

over 6 years ago


Ronan Cremin


I tested the Alexa 100 using the user-agents strings of Firefox 8, iPhone and a Nokia 6300. I don't have the figures to hand but >85% of these sites were serving different content for at least 2 of the devices tested (and so absolutely do have a mobile site) and a large subset of these were further distinguishing between the two mobile devices by serving entirely different HTML to each one. I'll re-test and publish the numbers with analysis soon on

Bear in mind that many of the finer content adaptation choices these guys make aren't immediately apparent. The Google home page in particular tends to look identical but there are lots of small differences in what gets served.

over 6 years ago

Douglas McDonald

Douglas McDonald, Director of Mobile and Connected Consumer at TMW

@Ronan You are right - many of those companies such as Facebook & Google do have specific mobile sites, though I still maintain that the vast majority of brands and organisations do not. I'm still not sure what your point is though as it pertains to my post.

over 6 years ago



Its amazing what a difference responsive design and fluid grid are making to mobile website design. It would be good to see this article updated please.

over 5 years ago



Apparently, Google have openly stated that they recommend websites to be built in responsive design.

about 5 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.