The roots of popular music are firmly embedded in technological innovation — and limitation. Symphonic music, Opera and multi-verse ballads were all the rage around the time that Edison invented the phonograph. Edison’s invention used cylinders, and these allowed lengthy recordings as fit the style of the times, but they were superceded by the flat disc, which was easier to stack and package.
The earliest records were 10 inch shellac discs with wide grooves, that allowed 3 minutes of recording time per side. The popularity of this technology roughly coincided with the rise of radio, and the two technologies fit together perfectly. The demand for content to fit these 3 minute discs gave rise to a new art form: the popular song.
The 3 minute pop song remained a standard long after the technology had advanced beyond the initial limitations. When RCA introduced the 7 inch 45 in 1949, it was capable of holding 7 and a quarter minutes per side, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that there was any real demand for utilising that length. Instead, thousands of well crafted 3 minute pop songs continued to dominate the airwaves.
To this day songwriting ‘rules’ continue to be influenced by a technological limitation that ended 63 years ago. This is in part because of the legacy of all the great pop singles from the 50′s and 60′s, and because two generations of listeners have been ‘trained’ to appreciate a catchy, 3 minute ditty.
So what does any of this have to do with web development, and specifically mobile web development?
Well, much like the great songwriters of yesterday had to contend with a technological limitation to practice their craft, web developers of today must face a similar challenge with mobile web platforms and their limitations.
For songwriters it was the 3 minute pop song, for web developers it is the 3.5 inch screen size, touch screens, spotty performance and the limited attention of their audience who are either on the move or otherwise impatient to get what they are after. But in the same way the songwriting greats got creative with the limitations imposed on them, today’s web developers must accept the limits and move beyond them.
Limitation demands creativity. A lack of options requires new perspectives. Technology sometimes imposes both while at the same time removing all kinds of other limits. Mobile First means having to strip a site down to its elements, so that the true functionality of it is apparent to all users. It means having to really consider the user experience, and how most people interact with their devices. It means trashing the bells and whistles and extraneous fluff so the user gets to do what they came to do with a minimum of fuss. In some cases, it may bring into question whether a website is even appropriate at all.
At the same time think what a mobile device can do. It knows where you are. It knows where your friends are. It sees what you see, and can record it. It can speak to you, and you can speak to it. You can brush your thumb or tap your fingers to access capabilities. It knows what resolution your screen is, and which way you are holding the device.
The first iteration of the web was largely a translation of print medium to hyper media. That was the golden era of Brochureware, where users more or less ‘read’ the web. The second iteration focused on user input, and the era of social media blossomed. The era we are in now is the era of applications, where users expect web sites to do something useful. The advent of mobile devices fits perfectly into that paradigm, and more users will be accessing web sites through mobile devices than desktops.
The Leiber and Stoller’s, and Lennon and McCartney’s of the past took the 3 minute time limit and ran with it, creating elegant, succinct musical statements that enthralled a generation. We don’t know what the future of the internet is going to be, but the shift to mobile platforms is surely going to have a great deal to do with it.