Andrew Walmsley on Digital: What the smart money is on

Smartphones sales are booming, so why haven't brands optimised their sites for the mobile web?

I predicted this 12 months ago. Just three years after its initial release, Google's Android has overtaken Nokia's Symbian to become the world's biggest-selling operating system (OS) for smartphones.

Of the 101m smartphones shipped in the fourth quarter of 2010, 33m had Android installed (double the number in 2009). This level of accelerated growth is astonishing.

It's driven by two key factors. First, Google gives handset manufacturers Android for free; second, it's not tied to an individual handset brand. Google makes its money from search and allied activity on the phone.

In contrast, handsets manufactured by Apple and Nokia are tied in to their own OS which is paid for every time a handset is purchased.

With more than a third of adults in the UK owning a smartphone, you would expect firms with an online retail presence to have mobile websites ready to tap into this wealthy and active market, right? Wrong.

Using an Android-powered HTC smartphone as my test handset, I discovered that just a quarter of the top 50 online retailers have optimised their websites for mobile delivery.

Of those, apparel retailers have reacted quicker than most. Next, ASOS and Marks & Spencer automatically redirect smartphone users to a mobile-optimised site. Next and M&S also provide users with a clickable phone number at the bottom of the page to speak to a sales assistant. However, both are 0844/5 numbers, which can be more expensive if dialled from a mobile phone.

What is surprising is how few travel-related sites are optimised for mobile. Ryanair and easyJet take users to their main website, while bmi doesn't even scan your browser to take you automatically to your country site. Among UK airlines, BA leads the way with a well-optimised mobile website that's seemingly been designed for customers equipped with a BlackBerry device or similar.

In the budget hotel market, you'd expect mobile sites to be well-placed to grab last-minute business travellers. Yet Travelodge doesn't have a mobile website, while competitor Premier Inn recommends that you download an app instead. This app is not available on the Android marketplace, and so brings up several ominous-sounding security messages which are rather off-putting.

None of the major banks offers a mobile site and, surprisingly, of the big four supermarkets only Morrisons has one. Strangely, Apple, Nokia, Motorola and HTC are far too busy selling smartphones to actually bother creating a mobile site, leaving only Samsung to lead the charge.

Now this lack of attention to the mobile web may well be due to the focus on the apps market on smartphones over the past two years.

However, very few of the 200,000 or so apps currently available for iPhone users have achieved any breakthrough of note. More importantly, few deliver any value that could not be presented in a mobile website without all the adoption barriers that a download represents. Apps don't provide instant access to content for consumers and, on average, only eight or nine apps are retained by users on their handset.

There appears to be only two reasons for choosing an app over a website for business; the content is specifically designed for offline use, or the app needs to access specific equipment on the device such as GPS or a camera (though this, too, is changing).

Amazon has both; a site for browsing and a barcode-scanning app for comparing prices (see 30 seconds on ...).

It is at the vanguard of digital retail at a time when brands are just beginning to understand the different roles apps and the mobile web play. The app remains a powerful tool, but during 2011 attention will shift to the mobile web.

- Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist



- Amazon released its latest mobile shopping application, Amazon App for Android, last week. It is available as a free download from Android Market.

- The app enables users to compare prices, track packages and access the usual features such as 1-Click.

- A new feature is barcode scanning. This allows users to scan the barcode on an item, via their phone's camera. The app then provides a product match, with no need to type.

- Amazon Mobile for iPhone and iPod Touch offers a similar standard service. One experimental feature on this platform is Amazon Remembers. This allows users to take photos from their device to create a list of things they want to remember. If the item is a product, the app tries to find one similar for sale on the web; if it does, it sends the user an email alert, complete with a link to the product.

- Windowshop for iPad is a visually rich display designed to give iPad users a 'flowing' browsing experience, with all the usual shopping features.


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