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IBM boffins unfurl mobile browser reading map

Simple pleasures for small screens

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Mobile web browsing is indisputably a tech on the rise, but cruising the internet while clutching a tiny handheld remains a far more frustrating endeavor than on a traditional PC.

A team of IBM researchers in Japan are tinkering with a technology that could possibly help ease the endless scrolling, pinching, and tapping associated with the mobile web today.

They've created a visual editor that would let webmasters arrange a website's reading flow in an ordered sequence of arrows catering to the small screens of mobile devices. Importantly, this is done without needing to change the existing content for regular browsing.

You can see a demo of the technology here:

It's an interesting concept that could be expanded to improve how mobile devices read current web content rather than cramming everything into a format readable by smaller screens.

The technology also has an immediate application in improving the internet for visually impaired web surfers — which is the reason the IBM team initially developed the editor.

Blind web surfers use software which reads out the contents of web pages at a bewildering speed (to those unused to it), allowing the user to select hyperlinks and navigate sites. Badly-designed sites don't flow properly, which makes it hard to follow. Big sites can afford to optimise their content for the blind, but the new toolkit from IBM allows anyone to create an optimised flow just by dragging arrows to show how the site should be read.

Large bodies of text present no difficulty to reading software, but the more-innovative layouts of today's Web 2.0 menagerie are more of a challenge. IBM's existing Social Accessibility Project allows sighted volunteers to add navigational information to web sites though a handy sidebar. That navigational information is then stored on servers run by the project and loaded by reading software when needed.

IBM's new tools will be shared through that project, and flows created by webmasters for their own pages will be uploaded to the Social Accessibility server for use by blind web surfers, not to mention those who need to use the web without a screen, or those for whom reading is just too twentieth century.

Last week, Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer was called sour grapes when he told the Associated Press: "Let's face it, the Internet was designed for the PC. The Internet is not designed for the iPhone. That's why they've got 75,000 applications — they're trying to make the Internet look decent on the iPhone."

Yes, he's probably bitter. But he makes a honest point. The vast majority of the internet is designed with larger screens in mind. And companies like Google already hopping aboard the popularity of mobile web browsers and allowing placement of larger ads on mobile pages. What's clearly needed now are better ways for small screens to digest the ever-expanding media-rich internet. ®

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