Practical Ecommerce

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

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

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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  1. Roy Rubin September 24, 2008 Reply

    Thanks for the great article. We posted a [video that showcases the Magento iPhone support in-action](

    Thanks again.

    Roy / Magento

  2. Chip Arndt September 25, 2008 Reply

    Yes, this is a superior article, thank you for it.

    I have been proselytizing about mobile commerce at for almost 2 years and helping merchants send their product catalog feed to mobile commerce channels as mPoria, mShopper and many others…our time has come. I will certainly write about this article today at eTaildTail and reference it. Thank you.

    Chip Arndt

  3. Armando Roggio September 25, 2008 Reply

    Chip, I like the eTaildTail blog. In fact, I just subscribed to your RSS feed.

  4. cabz September 25, 2008 Reply

    Nice article – I’ve been following Magento since before there launch and am leaning towards using it as a platform when we build version 2 of our e-commerce site. For our market, I don’t think m-commerce is going to drive much, if any, traffic. However, having the option for free (and I assume that changing the color scheme slightly to match your store won’t be a huge deal) is always nice.

    That said, for those who are in markets that can exploit m-commerce, I think your point about it only scratching the surface is a bit misleading. The article gives figures for total handsets, but a very high percentage of those users do not even have a viable browser on their phone (including BlackBerry users, I would argue). Of the new generation of phones (and those likely to be m-commerce customers), Apple’s 8 to 10 million users is a much higher percentage than you imply.

  5. Armando Roggio September 25, 2008 Reply

    @Cabz. Thanks for the comment. You make a good (smart, savvy, knowing) point when you write, " I think your point about it only scratching the surface is a bit misleading…of the new generation of phones (and those likely to be m-commerce customers), Apple’s 8 to 10 million users is a much higher percentage than you imply." In fact, your comment is almost exactly the same as what the folks at Varien/Magento said. And it may very well be true, but I still don’t see it.

    The Apple iPhone has forced a paradigm-shift in mobile browsing (which I personally believe will kill .mobi), but the company still does not have market share (yet?). Other phone makers, like Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, and, yes, even BlackBerry-maker RIM will improve the web browsing features of their far more ubiquitous handsets and will, I think, be where the real m-commerce market resides. …Or I could just be mad that Apple stole their fancy touch screen (remember they stole the GUI too) from the folks at Neonode (which launched their tiny and better touch screen before the iPhone) and now Apple-geeks call the Neonode N2 the clone.

  6. cabz September 26, 2008 Reply

    @Armando: I agree, that in the future m-commerce will expand to the average handset (and other smart phone platforms), as the evolution continues. At this point though, most of the other handsets and their browsers need a lot of improvement before I would even consider trying to navigate an ecommerce site (or the web at all, on may of the platforms) with them – BlackBerry included. The iPhone and it’s customer base seem to be the low-hanging fruit in the m-commerce market and I think it’s wise of Varien not to spend much time on other platforms at this time. The iPhone theme, to me, demonstrates that Magento can be easily adapted to emerging technology and to me (as a potential adopter of Magento) that’s the real value in it at this point (for Varien, the real value is probably the PR that comes with that).

  7. Armando Roggio September 26, 2008 Reply

    @Cabz …Well said.

  8. RevolutionWeb September 26, 2008 Reply

    This seems a bit slow from the video. I’ve heard great things about Interspire’s shopping cart – I am considering becomming an Interspire partner. They have iPhone support as well, I just found [this video on YouTube.](

    They are commercial not open source, but definintely the ones to watch.

  9. Armando Roggio November 10, 2008 Reply

    As an update, the iPhone became the best selling mobile handset in the U.S. during 3Q08, making my point about the iPhone being a drop…well not much of a point anymore.