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Browsing Like It's 1990

If you've been around long enough, you remember what Internet access was like back in the 1990s. For many people, high-speed Internet access was only available at work (if even there). Internet at home was most likely dial-up via a 56K modem. In those days, website designers had to do everything they could to compress and streamline their sites to run on slow connections, while at the same time keeping these sites attractive and engaging.

Those days are long gone at home and at work, but there's a different side of Internet access that looks quite a bit like the old dial-up modem days. This is, of course, the world of mobile computing. While commercials like to tout super-fast 4G speeds, mobile computing reality often involves slow and spotty connections.

This has led to a return to old website and content optimization tricks, which, like grunge and Netscape browsers, are straight out of the 90s. I recently attended an analyst day briefing at Akamai. The company outlined many of the features and capabilities that it is adding to its offerings. On the website experience side, one new feature is called adaptive image compression, which is designed to provide graceful image degradation when users with slower connections accessed Web content.

As Akamai described this capability, I had a moment of deja vu. That's because I remember reviewing products years ago that were designed to do the exact same thing. Of course, these products used things like Dynamic HTML and were targeted at dial-up Web users, but the concept was the same: to help sites deliver effective content to users on slower connections.

[350 IT pros weigh in on the native app vs. mobile browser debate and other pressing mobile issues. Read more at App Dev in the Age of Mobility. ]

And these types of capabilities are definitely needed today. Like many of you, I am often in situations where I have to rely on slow 3G data connections or slow public Wi-Fi offerings. (In fact, I'm writing this blog post on a train while connected to its pokey network.) In these connection situations, visiting a site designed for users with fat pipes can be an exercise in frustration.

This all leads to a bifurcated world where users sometimes have fast connections that can quickly access even the largest and richest content; at other times, users have connections that crawl along, barely able to access basic websites. One potential solution would be for the carriers to offer faster and less limited 4G data plans, but it may be a while before actual offerings live up to the promises in the commercials. Until then, we'll all have to rely on techniques that streamline content for slow connections. Just like the old days.