Bad News for Online Retailers with Separate Mobile Websites: Apple Introduces ‘Handoff’ at WWDC

Among the many software updates announced by Apple at today’s Worldwide Developer Conference, the team at Cupertino also introduced ‘Continuity‘ – an exciting new feature set to be released alongside OS X 10.10 and iOS 8.

‘Continuity’ is all about letting users easily move between devices while continuing the same activity. Included in ‘Continuity’ is a feature called ‘Handoff’, which, as Geekwire explains:

‘Handoff’ gives users the ability to pass whatever they’re doing back and forth between their nearby Macs and iOS devices. Now, users can start composing their emails on their Mac and finish them off on an iPad, or finish up a Keynote slide deck from their iPhone and hand it over to their Mac for a presentation.

This feature is an important move for Apple – it is a direct response to how their customers want to use Apple devices. More and more users expect to be able to seamlessly transition between desktops, smartphones and tablets while maintaining focus and task ‘continuity’.

In practice, ‘Handoff’ means that whenever a user is working on a document, browsing the web, writing an email or doing any activity that can be supported across multiple devices, the non-active devices are passively monitoring which application is being used on the other device nearby, and syncing with them in real time.

When you decide to move to a different device, a single swipe is all it takes to resume the activity.

But when the goal of the feature is continuity of experience, what are the implications for websites that serve up completely separate experiences across devices?

What ‘Handoff’ Means for Websites with Separate Mobile Sites

While apps in Apple’s ecosystem are able to easily sync between devices, the web represents an entirely different entity.

Rather than trying to provide a single user experience at a single URL that reflows for different devices, there is still a large number of websites that try to redirect users to separate mobile experiences (e.g. m.example.com).

However, serving up a separate site for different devices introduces potential for the user’s experience to break as they transition between smartphone, tablet and desktop devices.

Consider the visual example below, where a mobile specific URL is passed to the desktop. The resulting user experience is clearly sub-optimal.

macys1

Thanks to a separate mobile site, Macy’s product pages provide a poor shopping experience when moving between smartphone and desktop.

This is especially important for online retailers, where not only are users more likely to be in ‘browse’ mode on their smartphones and ‘purchase’ mode on tablets or desktop computers, but also traffic from iOS devices typically represents the most valuable mobile shopping segment.

Conclusion

These updates to Apple’s iOS and OS X systems are completely in line with how many other companies are already thinking about users’ multi-screen experiences – not only across apps, but on the web as well.

Google and Microsoft actively recommend multi-screen experiences that can easily transition between devices, without interrupting the user’s flow.

For those companies that are still using m-dot websites to cater to mobile traffic, remember: forewarned is forearmed (and you have until Fall 2014 to update your website!)