The Cure for Mobile Anxiety

The growth of Web browsing on mobile devices is climbing rapidly.  According to a report published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Mobile Access 2010, in the past year, 38 percent of U.S. cell phone users accessed the Internet from their phones. That’s a huge jump from the year prior, when 25 percent of U.S. cell phone users reported mobile internet use.

But the scary statistic for web publishers is that, according to Compuware Inc., 58 percent of mobile phone users expect web sites to load almost as quickly as or faster on their mobile phone in comparison to their PC.  I can understand why users have that expectation, but I am sure you will agree that it is not often the same experience.  How many times have you experienced or witnessed others with the anxious stare as the mobile user waits for the requested web page to load.

Having visitors wait for a page to load is frustrating to marketers and will become increasingly so as mobile platforms become more critical.  Forrester predicts that in the upcoming years, mobile commerce is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 39%.  Mobile platforms are well positioned to be critical drivers of growth for many business segments so what can you do to ensure you are minimizing mobile anxiety for your users and visitors.

First let’s put aside the most commonly blamed culprit for slow page load times – the mobile networks.  Mobile networks are being upgraded as fast as the carriers’ capital budgets allow and, as a web publisher, there’s not a great deal you can do to address this issue.  Slow page load times are not only about the bandwidth or the possibility of overloaded towers, rather a major cause which is almost never discussed for slow mobile page load times is the disparity in the round-trip-times (RTT) experienced by users on wireless versus wired broadband networks. The RTT from the mobile device to the mobile gateway and back is inevitably greater than the last mile RTT from the end user back and forth over cable, fiber or DSL broadband connections at home or at work.

One of the major causes of these slow RTTs on mobile devices is the dated nature of the HTTP request-response protocol.  The HTTP protocol is now decades old and many of its shortcomings are difficult to work around when delivering to mobile devices.  For example, HTTP allows processing of only one request per connection. This means that it takes a minimum of an RTT to complete a single request, and prevents the browser from using that connection to send additional requests until the response is fully received.

Browsers on a personal computer circumvent this issue by launching as many as 6 separate connections per hostname.  The problem of slow RTTs on mobile devices can also be compounded by variable and inconsistent connections.  A slow initial connection slows all the connections behind it.

One approach to address the HTTP problem is called “pipelining,” and in fact is part of HTTP/1.1. This enables the client to send additional requests on a connection before receiving the entire response back from the server. Pipelining enables better utilization of the link by eliminating some unneeded round trips. Unfortunately at the moment most browsers and some servers and network proxies do not support pipelining.

Pipelining is also unable to handle the sequencing of requests and responses which results in responses having to be sent in the exact order as the requests.  Therefore if there is a request for an object that is slow to serve it will slow the entire request.  One way to address this problem is to improve the intelligence of these requests thus reducing the likelihood of a request for a slow object creating a downward spiral of latency.  Intelligent image compression can be used to ensure image size is optimized for the requesting device and its’ display capabilities and the real-time conditions of the user’s mobile network.

Intelligent mobile optimization solutions such as these are currently being deployed by the AT&T Digital Media Solutions team to improve the quality of mobile delivery and reduce those RTTs. At the same time we are moving content and delivery logic closer to the user via more intelligent caching.  Along with improved mobile networks we are confident that the level of anxiety caused by the mobile wait times will decline.  This will be in line with the tremendous growth in business results that mobile platforms will increasingly deliver.  Please visit our website for more details on our AT&T Content Acceleration service and specifically our Mobile Optimization products.

What do you think of think of Google’s initiatives around SPDY?  Do you think it will be broadly embraced by handset manufacturers?
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