51Degrees' CTO: the responsive emperor is naked

This is a guest blog for the Computer Weekly Developer Network by 51Degrees’ advisor (and CTO of Wayra and boss of Mobile Monday London) Jo Rabin.

Rabin’s company provides open source device detection services for web developers so they can identify the devices that are hitting their websites and send (hopefully) a relevant web experience back to the user regardless of the device they are browsing on.

The below commentary comes on the heels of Google announcing the Accelerated Mobile Pages project recently – which aims to deliver faster web pages for publishers of content.

A naked fairy tale

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For some time it has been apparent that like the fairy tale emperor, responsive design lacks some essential items of clothing.

Google recently played the role of the small boy in that fairy tale by making the announcement of Accelerated Mobile Pages.

In Google’s announcement we see a refreshing acceptance that there is a problem with the web on mobile. Even more refreshing is that the argument is conducted on a down to Earth pragmatic and commercial basis, rather than on an abstract technological, aesthetic basis which ignores the commercial point of an organisation having a web site in the first place.

So web site owners are suffering, their users are suffering too.

Unhealthy lashings of JavaScript

Responsive Web Design on its own is quite simply not enough of an answer — and its unhealthy lashings of JavaScript poured over everything leads to sclerosis.

The first step, they say, is to acknowledge that there is a problem the next step, apparently, is to seek help.

So what help does Google offer?

Well, sensibly, it says it is tackling the problem one step at a time.

Google offers a remedy for primarily static pages that carry advertising. That’s great, but the approach it advocates is not startlingly different to advice that has been available from the W3C in the form of Mobile Web Best Practices for many years.

Things were quite different when that document was written, but the basics are still quite sound especially when you realise that those recommendations were written at a time when most web pages were primarily static and responsive design had not become a creed.

So it is not surprising that Google’s recommendations applied to static pages and the historic view are reasonably well aligned.

To take a specific example…

In AMP the size of an image is fixed and stated in the HTML. This avoids the browser having to shift pages around as they load, one of the main causes of poor user experience – if you start reading something then suddenly it changes position.

Knowing what size you want an image to be up front requires an understanding of the context in which the image is to be displayed – i.e. is this being shown on a 27 inch desktop monitor, or is it to be displayed on a small hand-held screen? The techniques that allow web sites to determine this kind of information have been around for a while. Businesses and brands that require better than a hit or miss user experience already use device detection as part of their web presence.

Determining the size of an image in advance is just one specific example of what AMP requires and what device detection provides the answer to. Many other aspects of user experience are improved by using this technique which is highly complementary to AMP.

Responsive design is by no means dead, but it really is beyond time that that its limitations were acknowledged and that debate moves on to discussing how to improve the real world of the web, improve user experience and help Web site owners to improve what is now an essential part of their business.

Kudos to Google for extending the emperor’s wardrobe.