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Reinventing the Mobile Web with Dave Winer

Dave Winer is an indisputably smart guy. Even though lots of people don’t always get along or agree with what he does and says, he’s contributed more to the way geeks like me read the web that just about anyone else out there. That earns him my respect, no matter his personality. ;-)

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Recently, Dave got a BlackBerry 8700, and discovered the joy of being able to read web pages on it no matter where he was at – on the train, waiting in line, etc. And, like all mobile geeks, he immediately started looking for a way to make the mobile web browsing experience easier. So he started whipping up little mobile-friendly pages of popular sites, like his own pda.scripting.com, TechCrunch, Scoble, GigaOm, MicroPersuasion, and others. And now, a “river of news” view of the New York TImes at nytimesriver.com.

Here’s what Dave’s nytimesriver.com looks like in Pocket IE on my Windows Mobile device:

Presumably, he’s taking those sites’ RSS feeds, and formatting them for display on the page. Great use of syndication to make the content more accessible on the mobile device, if you happen to want to read one of those sites on your mobile device.

But what if you want to read a site that Dave hasn’t set up a scraper/viewer for? Do you have to wait for Dave to set up a scraper for it? Beg and plead to influence him to do your requested site before everyone else’s? It seems that the next logical step would be for Dave to put up a page that will let you enter the RSS feed for your favorite site, and display a mobile-friendly view of that feed for your browsing enjoyment.

Sound familiar? :-)

Dave is understandably excited about this cool new way of viewing the web that he’s discovered. And for the sites he’s set up, it undeniably brain dead simple to use – just point your browser at the URL, and read. No setup or work required. But as we can see, it doesn’t scale. I doubt Dave wants to get into the business of creating a mobile web version of every site on the internet.

Here’s what the nytimes.com front page looks like when viewed through Google’s Mobile Page Translator:


You can feed any URL into this tool, and it will give you a mobile friendly version of the page. It will even reformat links that you follow off the page, so you stay in a mobile friendly environment. Oh, and it automatically applies this formatting to search results followed from the Google Mobile page (http://google.com/xhtml). And this is just one example – Skweezer.net provides a similar service, and Bloglines Mobile has been my tool of choice for a long time, since I can read all 1000+ of my RSS feeds in a perfectly mobile friendly web page.

So now, there are people like me, who are trying to (gently) point out to Dave that people have been doing this for years. Dave derides those people as “predictable backlash”, and claims that his way of doing the mobile web is a “turning point”, similar to how podcasting was a turning point for audio on the internet.

Dave, we love you, but we’d really like it if you took a step back here, and realized how arrogant you sound when you make claims like that, and how much it minimizes the efforts of people who have been providing and using tools for mobile web browsing for years. Yes, we’re happy that you discovered why it’s so cool, and yes, we have visions for how it could be made better in the future. But unlike podcasting, which was basically undiscovered territory, you’re jumping into a world that has a ton of prior art. And we definitely don’t want to turn you away from your newfound excitement, and willingness to innovate. On the contrary – I personally can’t wait to see what you can come up with that makes mobile web browsing even better.

So please, take a little time to become familiar with what’s already out there. Listen to people who leave comments and send you email about tools that are already doing what yours do. Give them a fair evaluation, absorb what they’re about, and then apply your knowledge and skills to help us make the whole thing better. It would be a waste of your time and ours for you to reinvent the world of mobile web browsing from the ground up.

EDIT: Dave’s response to my comment (which I also emailed him before writing this post): “I was doing aggregators before any of those people, so send them emails kvetching about how they didn’t look at what was avaialble before they started coding. ;->“. And then, after another message, “The key part of my message to you was to go kvetch at someone else.” Nice. Thanks for being open to listen to others, Dave.

Update: Bloggers are falling all over themselves telling us how cool Dave’s mobile pages are (Jeff Jarvis, Doc Searls, etc.). Kissing up to Dave? Or are the “old” geeks really just getting around to trying to view news on their mobile devices? I wonder if this is evidence of a geek generational gap? ;-)

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22 thoughts on “Reinventing the Mobile Web with Dave Winer

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  6. I think this is reinventing the wheel. There are lots of mobile RSS feed readers, including J2ME, .Net for Windows Mobile and C for Palm handhelds. There are lots of services that do this already, such as Google and Skweezer.

    Trying to be the “inventor” but a few years late to the party?

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  9. You’re better men than me, John and JK. I used to say Winer’s ego needed it’s own zip code… now it needs its own area code since it just inflated itself again.

    Personally I flip out each and every time this happens, no matter who’s taking credit for it. Someone tweak something that already exists and BAM they did it first. There have been mobile RSS readers for well over two years now… just because you wrote the first spec for RSS it doesn’t mean you own all blogs everywhere on every platform. Otherwise every website out there would be credited to CERN.

    Besides, NOW you have to check with Scoble to see if something like this even qualifies as blog reading. After all he’s defining what is and is NOT a blog – maybe this is just mobile WEB reading, in which case Phone.com owns it, right?

    Drives me nuts.

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  11. Excellent reading! Thanks Josh! A topic only marginally in my radar. This I know – it would have been nice to have a hand held device for my recent travels through the Western US. Someday, they will be affordable, easy to use, understandable to the masses. Until then – what we got is newspapers, TV…and this thing called internet access.

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  13. What’s ironic is that I can’t even load the nytimesriver.com site on my PEBL. I’m restricted to T-Mobile’s “t-zones,” but all this means in essence is that the built in browser won’t load HTML. If the doctype is WML or XHTML Mobile–which is what google serves–pages load just fine. Not only is the river idea *not* new, it’s reach is not as great as already existing services.

    Unless I’m missing something?

  14. JustJohnny says:

    I think I agree, to some extent, that this isn’t new. What is new is Dave’s approach, specifically with news feeds, to present easily read content. I find his method is clean and produces, for me, content that I can digest on the go –without all the fuss of fancy formatting. Even the google x-verter leaves in some formatting. Bottom line is that the extra adds up in bandwidth strain, thumb strain and even eye strain for me.

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