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Does the iPhone Keep dotMobi Awake at Night?

We’ve had a number of questions (and seen plenty of commentary) regarding the recent launch of the iPhone and how it might affect us and the mobile web in general.

I posted some of initial ideas back in January—and, despite the fact that I personally don’t yet own one, I pretty much feel that our original assessment holds up.

In a nutshell: the iPhone changes the way that tastemakers think about their online existence. Interacting with the web, clearly, is no longer a solitary, sedentary and constrained activity.

Now I’ve personally believed this for a while, so arguably it’s no big deal—the long-term evolution of the web to become a largely mobile (and, by the way, subtly different) medium is inevitable.

With the iPhone, however, this vision starts to become reality for a broad population of users. Not because it’s an especially great phone (I believe it is, although not without its flaws). Not because it’s doing anything other handsets elsewhere haven’t done before, or better. And not even because there’s some significance in the way the handset’s usage is packaged with sole carriers. (Phew! Coming to Europe soon...)

No, the iPhone is significant simply because mobile access to the web is now, well, cool. No longer are you branded a technogeek or crackberry addict when you pull out your mobile in public and start Twittering or Google/Readering. No. I’m getting down with the pinchy-fingered mobi generation. Could the mobile web really become as de riguer as white headphones?

Maybe. Probably. And if so, how can that be a bad thing for any of us?

(Certainly not a case of “iWhatever”!)

But what does that mean for the .mobi top-level domain extension? Does it mean the proposition is doomed? Why would I ever go to a .mobi site when my shiny new browser does a really admirable job with most (but oh, not all) web pages?

Well of course not. Only if you might naively think that .mobi is only about catering for the constraints of a particular class of browsers. And only if you think that the user’s mobile context is not something interesting enough to warrant special attention.

(If you do think that, you’ve obviously not yet become a mobile web user! Go get yourself an iPhone!)

“Mobile Content for the Mobile Context” is what a .mobi domain is all about. And whilst the iPhone browser removes many of the constraints of today’s average mobile browser, there’s no Jobsian magic that can suddenly turn the world’s web corpus into something contextually compelling by default for mobile-users-at-large.

You’ve probably heard me give examples of genres of web sites whose constitution would ideally change based on the mobile context. Some are glib perhaps. But think about it. If you’ve ever accessed a traditional (I’ll say sedentary) web site on a mobile device, you’ll know exactly what I mean: you nearly always come away just a little dissatisfied: wishing that the search engine or the sites that you used had somehow, let’s say, cut to the chase.

“I’m mobile, goddamnit! I don’t have time for your sedentary context! When I asked about coffee, I didn’t mean I want to read research papers about the growth of Coffea Canephora plants in Brazil! I meant I need caffeine! Now! So where’s the nearest cafe?!”

For the seasoned mobile web user, that’s the sort of frustration that will immediately sound grimly familiar. Surfing about on regular web pages with my phone is a neat trick, but rarely meets my expectations in terms of a high-demand user. (At least not without a fair degree of persistence and patience on my part, which I always feel is merely my professional obligation to have to tolerate!)

Yes, I can’t wait to rotate my iPhone about, and wipe my sweaty fingers around on the screen to zoom, pan and scroll. But that’s playing. Pretty soon, the novelty is going to wear off. And I’m going to be left looking for sites and services that are so exciting that I’m compelled to use my expensive new toy to access them, rather than waiting a few hours until I am sedentary again ;-)

So the main reason that I’m excited about the iPhone is that these frustrations and challenges are going to be exposed to a far larger, trend-driven propulation. And with the size, motivation and influence of the Apple cult (both on the user and developer sides of the equation), the iPhone’s greatest legacy may well be the catalysm of the world’s site owners and developers doing something about it.

With the mobile web’s historical challenges of cost, speed, browser (and fashion!) removed from the equation, I hope we’ll now see an explosion of interesting, innovative, mobile-centric services burgeoning. The “iPhone mobile web aftermarket” you might even call it.

Will this be a movement that understands the value of the .mobi domain? A way of letting site owners state their mobile credentials? A way of letting the user indicate their mobile context by default? A way of large brands providing competive and differentiating services?

Well, of course we hope so. Certainly nothing about the iPhone breaks that logic.

Ultimately, the TLD’s context-centric proposition is as strong as ever - and with spectacular phones like the iPhone continuing the mobile web’s unstoppable aggrandizement, it seems to me that these are all winds blowing in the same direction.

I’ve never been more excited about the future.

By James Pearce, Vice President of Technology

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