When ZDNet Grasps For Legitimacy

I subscribe to the ZDNet newsletter, which is essentially an email I receive twice a day during the work week that has a bunch of headlines and excerpts from their various blogs. In general, I appreciate both the newsletter and their articles, and even though their discussion system sucks, they usually have some helpful or insightful blog entries.

But sometimes I wonder where they find these people. When you write for a tech site but have no connection to the real world, it becomes painfully obvious that you’re something of a hack. When reading The Allure of the Text by Christopher Dawson, I was stunned by both his shortsightedness and his ignorance.

Dawson essentially states that he has never texted before and, though he’s yelled at the kids on his lawn to go text somewhere else, he has trouble understanding why they’d bother typing into the tiny keyboards built into cell phones. Sure, maybe it’s more private than talking out loud, but it’s a pain and, besides, how can you see the screen without your bifocals on?

But then he has a revelation. Texting is similar to email! I can have multiple conversations going at once!

Dawson then laments the stupidity of kids, who are clearly just wasting time with texting when they could be using it for more glorious pursuits like collaboration.

I was stunned, because I don’t think I’ve ever read such a stupid piece of rubbish. The assumptions of this guy were mind-boggling, not just because they were derogatory but due to how ill-informed they were.

Texting is more prevalent with people younger than myself; I missed the cell-phone-boom by a couple of years. Yes, most of us had cell phones in high school, but not everyone did, and they were really intended only for emergencies. Now the devices are ubiquitous and a lot of people use them as their primary communication device. Students aren’t using texting to plan the next kegger, they’re using it to schedule tutoring sessions, get directions, and generally as a primary means of communication. It is replacing both email and instant messaging, powerfully influencing the way this generation will do business in the future.

If you want to connect with a younger person, you need to be texting. I can’t get my niece to even reply to messages within a week on MySpace, and forget about email, but she’ll get back with a text message in minutes. April tutors high school students, several of whom can only be reached through texting. And universities are beginning to realize the necessity for texting as prospective students request text communication over snail- or even e-mail.

Here’s a hint, Chris: the kids are way ahead of you, already doing ten times the communicating and collaborating you can imagine. And if you’re not careful, they’re going to overtake and replace you.

The Evolutionary Process of Mobile Browsing on WordPress

Two Calls

My first rant, though certainly not my first try

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the trials and tribulations I had encountered and failed to overcome in regards to making WordPress a little more mobile-friendly. I’m not a coder or even a web developer/designer (though I sometimes pretend to be at work), so beyond using the tools and guides provided and tweaking some code, I’m at a loss for how to redo everything and make it work myself. Unfortunately, the tools that existed didn’t play well together and therefore didn’t serve my purposes for providing a fast site that also worked on mobile browsers.

When I wrote about my failed attempts, I learned that the coder, patrias familias, and maintainer of WP Super Cache, Donncha O Caoimhm, modified the plugin to allow mobile developers to add a filter to their code that would tell WP Super Cache to cache and serve data differently depending on certain variables, but no one quite picked up on it or modified their plugin to work in conjunction with WP Super Cache. And since WordPress almost isn’t worth running without WP Super Cache, it was sort of a wash.

A New Hope, Another Failure

As you may recall, I thought I had found a solution in the form of the WordPress Mobile plugin earlier this month, but it too failed. The problem is that you don’t just want a different stylesheet for mobile content; if that was all, there’d be no issue because WP Super Cache doesn’t cache styles, just content. But on mobile devices, you don’t have room or time to load everything, so you really only want to serve the content that is pertinent (blogrolls, for instance, might be nice, but you don’t want to have to scroll past that on a tiny mobile screen). Therefore, plugins that serve content to mobile devices also use a different theme for those devices, and when that theme gets cached, it then ends up being displayed to regular web browsers. WordPress Mobile, like all the other mobile plugins, weren’t using the filter in WP Super Cache to cache and serve their content appropriately.

Eureka! At last!

Donncha has just released version 0.9 of WP Super Cache, however, and this one takes into account user agent strings to identify mobile browsers by using the detection code from Alex King’s WordPress Mobile Edition. I began testing this on SilverPen yesterday using developmental versions of both WP Super Cache and WordPress Mobile Edition, and after identifying and working out a single bug (Donncha worked it out, of course, not me!) it appears to be working great! We ran into a snag where Safari on Mac was being identified as a mobile browser, but Donncha had that fixed before I could even get him the log files.

A new version of WordPress Mobile Edition has not yet been released, and I’m not entirely sure it needs to be. The caching and UA checks are being handled by WP Super Cache now to decide what to cache and serve, so not only should your choice of mobile plugin be irrelevant, it should also Just Work™.

Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Download WP Super Cache

Download WordPress Mobile Edition

Image by: lusi

WordPress not quite ready for mobile browsing

Instead of redacting this entire entry, I’ll let you know that mobile browsing for WordPress does work now. See my updated article on The Evolutionary Process of Mobile Browsing on WordPress for more details.


One of my design goals for revision 3 of SilverPen Publishing was to make the site more accessible. I’m not a web developer by trade and didn’t really know how to do this, but I knew that I didn’t want to exclude people from visiting my corner of the web. To me, this didn’t just mean making SilverPen more friendly to screen readers and other assistive technology devices, but also to make the site work well on mobile devices.

To this end, I found yet another great plugin by Alex King that queries the user agent of the browser trying to access the site. If it’s a mobile web browser, the plugin serves up a custom template that’s very lightweight and fast to load on mobile devices. It worked very well, but unfortunately it only worked in a vaccuum, and even then had some serious repercussions.

WP Super Cache

First off, it simply does not work with WP Super Cache, and in fact, no mobile browsing solution does. For those who haven’t heard of Super Cache, I’ll explain what it does and why it’s necessary very briefly. Every blog post and page that WordPress serves up is dynamically generated on the fly when you access the site. Putting all the pieces together to make a web page puts a lot of load on the server, and it makes the page load a lot slower for you. Caching allows the server to create static pages, rather than dynamic ones, of the same content and therefore serve it up faster. This reduces load on the server and makes the page load a whole lot fast for you.

Because of how WordPress works, this caching is pretty much vital to running a site on WordPress. My traffic’s not that high yet, but it has more than doubled in the last few months, and I expect it to continue increasing at a similar rate. The last thing I need is Bluehost freezing my site temporarily due to a sudden spike of traffic, so like all good WordPress bloggers, I use WP Super Cache.

To make a long story short, WP Super Cache creates a copy of a page the first time someone visits it. Each subsequent visitor is shown that copy, and this is what breaks WordPress Mobile Edition. Since you’re viewing a static copy of the page that has already been generated, you don’t see the mobile theme, rendering the mobile plugin useless.

If it’s a choice between having the page load more quickly for most everyone and reducing the load on my server vs. having the site more accessible on mobile devices, I’m going to have to go with the former. Especially as data plans move towards 3g and faster mobile browsing.

Search Engine de-Optimization

The second reason that mobile browsing fails for WordPress is because it kills SEO, which harms your ranking in search engines. By its very nature of essentially serving a different set of pages to mobile devices, plugins such at WordPress Mobile Edition fool search engine robots into thinking there’s a second website with duplicate content on it. Such duplicate content is ranked down by search engines, which means your pages are less likely to turn up in searches and you’ll get less traffic.

The mobile plugins and solutions for WordPress all admit that it’ll kill your SEO and recommend you “do something” about it, but don’t offer many solutions. I thought I had found an elegant work-around yesterday in the form of themed multiple domains in WordPress, which would allow me to have multiple domains pointing at a single instance of WordPress, wich each domain triggering its own theme. In this instance, you can easily redirect robots that hit those other domains to a separate robots.txt file, which would tell them “don’t index this site.” For example, if I had silverpenpub.net and m.silverpenpub.net (for mobile browsers), I could have the main site indexed and tell the robots not to index the mobile site.

But I don’t want to register a separate domain for mobile browsers, and I couldn’t get it to work with a subdomain for some reason. Maybe I was doing something wrong there and will figure it out eventually, but it’s not going to happen today.

Not worth my time

In the end, trying to twist WordPress into working on mobile devices doesn’t give a  lot of return for the investment, and I’m beginning to think it will be a non-issue before too long. Even I am beginning to dream nightly of acquiring an iPhone, and browsing with a 3g connection means that, even over a cellular data plan, you can load a site quickly. And newer phones have a lot larger screens, which means that my theme displays fine all on its own.

I know that WordPress now has a iPhone-friendly administrative interface, and I hope that they include more features in the future to help their platform run better on mobile devices. Accessibility is still important to me, but I can’t justify 5-10+ hours of work to make the site more accessible to 0.5% of readers by introducing “features” that degrade or break the site for the other 99.5%.