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How It Is

The Need for Mobile Speed

Contemplating how terrible the modern web is on a slow connection.

I took the train from NYC to Montreal, which I will never do again. It was too long, too uncomfortable, and customs actually made the TSA preferable. But while you ponder that in your back brain, I want you to consider this as well. The internet on the train sucks.

For the first time in years I was back on pre-smartphone speeds. And the problem with that is I was in a world that expected 3G or faster speeds. Here’s what would not load:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Tumblr
  • Most news webpages
  • Anything with video

Here’s what I could do:

  • Text

That was a pretty shitty smartphone experience. As I sat on the train, I wondered why it was so shitty. Didn’t we build everything to be mobile first? Wasn’t the point of the responsive systems to make it faster? Turns out we didn’t.

One of the things we do well in the modern web is device detection. If I’m on a mobile device, everything’s cool and perfect and my sites will load for that device. There are PHP libraries like Mobile Detect and Detect Mobile Browsers], but what they’re really doing is device checks, not mobile. Knowing what kind of device someone’s on lets us customize a web experience to that device, and that’s all we tend to do. We put in the hours to check “Is this a mobile device?” but not where we should be.

Of course, that’s really hard to do. Apps like SpeedTest and TestMy.net work alright, but when you’re traveling by rail, your speed is incredibly variable and confusing. One minute I’d have 4 bars, the next 1, and then I’d drop from LTE to 3G and worse. Oh, and don’t bother asking about the WiFi. It was a joke.

Somewhat related, I travel a lot for work. I recently did a 12 day run to NYC and then Montreal, where I was in hotels most of the time. Hotel Wifi is a spotty thing. Either they charge you up to $40 a day for the privilege of their shiternet, or they give you free wifi that loads everything but images. Trying to work from hotels is a hit and miss proposition as well. I can connect, but as soon as I hop onto my VPN, everything drags.

Then we have conferences. I’ve yet to go to a tech conf where we didn’t kill the Wifi, or nearly so. While that’s kind of our faults for leaving on our various automated updaters and DropBoxes and the like, there isn’t a ‘Conference Wifi’ mode on laptops to say “Hey, I’m on a bandwidth so don’t do the automated background things please and thank you.” This is, by the way, why my presentations are always on my local box as well as online. I assume the wifi will die.

In all cases, as soon as the internet quality drops to slow, our experience online crumbles. We simply haven’t built most tools to work in a one-bar world. And much of this isn’t a solution we can easily grasp. Even the big guys, who have servers built for stress and speed, are slow in these situations. Because we assume too much. We assume minimum connectivity.

The race for faster wireless service is on, but we should step back and look at the simplification of our sites. If we can make a low-speed version that is as fully featured, we should.