Going mobile with a news site that Just Works

Point #2 of my Seven simple thoughts about the Mobile Web was "Your old website should Just Work. ... When someone wants to use your website from a mobile browser for whatever reason, including following a link that someone sent them through Twitter, it should detect the user's browser and deliver an appropriately formatted page."

Next week we'll be launching a new version of the Augusta Chronicle's website that does exactly that.

This is part of a complete relaunch of the Chronicle's website, which is moving to Drupal on the Morris Site Management System.

For the first time, we're adding automatic browser detection and switching the design and navigation for users who visit the site with most smartphones -- Blackberry, iPhone, Android, Palm WebOS, high-end Symbian, and so on. We are not worrying about low-end phones, which account for very little Web usage.

Doing this on a simple blogging site is fairly straightforward. But for a huge, highly trafficked site it can get to be complicated. Here's the approach we've taken:

When you hit one of our MSMS sites, you're actually contacting one of several Squid cache servers that sit between our Drupal installations and the external network. If the Squid layer has a cached version of a page, it's delivered instantly. This means your page isn't necessarily dynamically generated.

To accommodate mobile browsers, we'll redirect you (instantly, invisibly) to a different domain but the same relative path ("/sports/some-headline-goes-here," for example).

Using the Drupal module Domain Access, the mobile domain is reconfigured to use mobile-friendly page templates and a completely different navigational experience that's tailored to the tiny screen.

The mobile domain is running on the same database as the main site. This means your relative path to a story should Just Work, and links passed around in email or Twitter won't be broken -- which is, unfortunately, the case with your typical vendor-powered mobile news website.

Domain Access is an interesting story in itself. Ken Rickard originally wrote the module for Skirt.com, which operates a network of local sites, when he worked at Morris DigitalWorks. We released the code to the Drupal community. Suddenly others found ways to improve it -- contributing ideas, code patches and complete add-on modules. Now it's come back to us, all grown up. We expect to use it in a number of interesting ways in coming months, spinning out specialty websites that are, under the hood, totally integrated with our site management system and running on a common database.

Assuming this approach works, we'll be using it to create mobile versions of all our news websites going forward.

The benefits of this approach go beyond mobile delivery of news. Interaction also works. You can log in. You can post comments. If your mobile browser properly and fully supports the HTML input tag (some do not), you can upload photos.

As I've noted before, mobile-enabling your existing content is not a complete mobile strategy. This is, in my view, simply remedial, fixing what's broken for mobile browsers.

The interesting and fun part is when you begin to think about what new things you could be doing that are focused on the poorly met needs of people in your community who are out and about. Drupal is a great platform for innovation and experimentation, and I'm looking forward to it.


This is probably the thing I'm most excited about with Augusta's launch and really look forward to it for Jacksonville. Its been pretty basic with Browscap module for small sites but for large ones it is much more difficult. Should be a great experiment to follow and hopefully set a new standard for things just working.