Design & Development

Magento's iPhone Theme: Mobile Commerce for the Masses?

Magento Commerce, an open source ecommerce platform, has introduced an Apple iPhone specific theme that is potentially the first step toward leveling the playing field for small online retailers who want to compete in the lucrative and booming mobile ecommerce market.Magento's iPhone theme is optimized for the popular phone's browser.

Mobile eCommerce Has Massive Potential

Mobile ecommerce (often call m-commerce) is coming; 9 million Americans have already made a purchase from a mobile device, and perhaps half of the United States’ 250 million odd mobile handset users are willing to make a purchase in the near future, according to a recent study from The Nielsen Company, New York, N.Y. All of those U.S. users plus the billions of consumers in Asia, Africa, and India, where a mobile handset may serve as phone, mobile TV, and primary point of Internet access, make m-commerce very attractive to e-retailers large and small.

But mobile browsing experiences can be frustrating for customers, and developing ecommerce websites that are functional, legible, and compelling for mobile device users has been the realm of moneyed and massive e-retailers like Amazon.com.

The Apple iPhone actually does an excellent job of rendering websites already, but there are still problems. Most online stores are designed to look good on a modern, flat-panel monitor which may be 19 inches in diagonal. While these sites are rendered properly on the iPhone, they take on diminutive dimensions, requiring an iPhone owner to zoom in, zoom out, and scroll in all directions. Bandwidth can also be a problem. iPhones use WiFi connections (802.11n standard), Bluetooth (radio), fast 3G cellular networks, or older and slower cellular networks depending on what sort of connection is available at a given time. Browsing on WiFi or a speedy 3G network might be no problem, but uploading an online store over older cellular networks can be painfully slow.

An example of Magento's iPhone theme for a product detail page.
To address this, Magento developed a special theme or combination of layout, template, and presentation files that are optimized for an iPhone’s browser. This theme still offers great looking graphics, full functionality, and the same payment gateways, but in proportions and layouts that make a store attractive and easy to use on an iPhone’s palm-sized LCD screen.

Equalizing m-Commerce

Magento’s new iPhone theme is an important (if small) step, giving independent e-retailers an easy way to tap m-commerce’s amazing potential. Varien, a Los Angeles, Calif.-based ecommerce developer and consultancy, created Magento Commerce and then unleashed the platform, turning it over to a vibrant community of perhaps 400,000 users (store owners and developers), while staying intimately involved in the platform’s development and expansion.
The new theme makes it easier for iPhone users to browse and shop Magento-powered sites with ease. Basically, Magento utilizes “the iPhone’s inherent navigation methods and offer[s] quick catalog browsing, global site search, customer accounts, and a shopping cart with a complete checkout process,” Varien said, “The iPhone extension delivers a user experience that supports the iPhone’s touch-screen functionality, taking users on a clearly defined path from browsing to purchasing.”

The iPhone is Just a Drop in the Bucket

Unfortunately, as awesome, cool, and fantastic as the iPhone may or may not be, it represents a very tiny percentage of the total mobile handset universe. By some estimates, leading mobile phone makers Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, LG, Sony-Ericsson, BlackBerry, and the like, build between 700 million and 1 billion new mobile handsets each year. While something like 8 million to 10 million iPhones have sold worldwide based on Steve Jobs 2008 MacWorld keynote speech and estimates for the iPhone 3G. So the new Magento iPhone theme only scratches the m-commerce surface. On the other hand, what e-retailer wouldn’t want to reach as many as 10 million or so potential customers all of whom represent the iPhone’s decidedly upscale user base.

Using the iPhone Theme to Gain a Competitive Advantage.

m-Commerce is here to stay, and retailers who implement a mobile solution like Magento’s iPhone extension will gain a competitive advantage over other ecommerce sites that are slower to adopt a mobile-specific platform. And there is still hope that Varien or other ecommerce developers will address the mobile mass market soon.

“We are looking to expand the capabilities of Magento to target additional mobile browsers in the future, but the iPhone, with its smart usability, market share and passionate audience was a natural place to start,” said Chris Marshall, a Varien spokesman.

The Magento Commerce iPhone extension and the Magento eCommerce Platform are available for free download at Magentocommerce.com.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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