When it comes to mobile development, does bandwidth still matter?

If you work in mobile development, there’s a good chance you already have a strong opinion about responsive design. (If you don’t already have a strong opinion, that will probably change by the end of this year. As buzz phrases go, “responsive design” could be the “cloud computing” of 2012.)

Given all this, I couldn’t not respond to this post about responsive design written by Joaquin Lippincott, president of Metal Toad Media: When It Comes to Mobile Development, Stop Worrying about Bandwidth. He makes some good points about the fact that some responsive design techniques — such as swapping out images for CSS3, and using other CSS3 techniques like gradients and transparencies — are processor-intensive, meaning that while they may deliver superior performance, they can be tough on your device’s CPU.

But this statement stopped me in my tracks:

When it comes to building websites in 2012, bandwidth truly doesn’t matter. [emphasis mine] And it’s going to matter even less in 2013 with the roll out of more 4G networks. Additionally many devices are often on wi-fi, so provider network speed is truly a non-issue. Even on 3G, bandwidth isn’t a big deal – we’re streaming HD video, so don’t sweat 20k images.

To say that bandwidth seriously doesn’t matter, in any context, is obvious bait for any performance geek. True, a growing number of mobile users are browsing via tablets at home over their wifi connection, but this shouldn’t distract us from the fact that mobile use is growing across the board, which means that the total number of people connecting over 3G and 4G is still increasing. And any mobile user who is sensitive to their data cap — and to those monthly bills from their telecom provider — will tell you that, for them, bandwidth truly does still matter.

Not surprisingly, there were comments from a few performance geeks at the end of the post, which ultimately led to Joaquin clarifying his point to mean that developers and designers need to balance the trade-offs between bandwidth and CPU load.

While I think that anyone who builds sites for a living gets the fact that speed is an important usability issue (or as I prefer to put it: speed is THE important usability issue), I hear alarm bells when I hear people casually toss off statements like “bandwidth doesn’t matter”. To me, this post demonstrates the wide gap that still exists between design and performance. It also makes me wonder what kinds of conversations are happening out there between digital media agencies and their clients, who might not have the technical background to understand the nuances of what’s being discussed.

Your thoughts on juggling responsive design and mobile performance? I’d love to hear stories from the trenches.

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4 thoughts on “When it comes to mobile development, does bandwidth still matter?

  1. Bandwidth becomes a concern in countries where bandwidth is still costly, and paid for in amount of data transferred, such as South Africa.

    On a global scale, high bandwidth shouldn’t be used as an excuse to drop standards and concerns in optimisation. If standards are dropped for mobile, desktop is sure to follow suit.

    Instead of travelling relatively fast through space dust, we’ll be travelling at warp speed through asteroid fields.

  2. regardless of the theoretical bandwidth that may be available between your handset and the cell tower on 3G or 4G networks you are still at the mercy of the backhaul network between the cell tower and the provider.

    And in many scenarios that might be the limiting factor as the backhaul networks were never built to handle the data volumes they now face, hence the (costly) migration to ethernet or “All IP” backhaul (http://www.ipjforum.org/?p=572 or http://www.scribd.com/doc/32220592/WP-Cell-Tower-Backhaul-1 for more background).

    It’s very easy to find “real world” scenarios where you can have “full signal” but a very poor performance because of a congested network (Waterloo Railway station being by favourite example!).

    But anyone who thinks that 4G LTE is going to be magically rolled out by 2013 is also hopelessly naive in the real-world economics of mobile network operator (MNO) economics… The MNO’s are still trying to pay for their 3G licenses and rollouts, and even then you can’t get a consistent data network connection along many well travelled commuter routes in the UK (my favourite being Paddington to Vodafone HQ in Newbury… drop outs all along the way…).

  3. Pingback: Web performance and the 2012 US election: Is site speed an early indicator of success?

  4. Pingback: Web performance and the 2012 US election: Is site speed an early indicator of future success?

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