Unless you’ve been living under a rock – which is unlikely given that you’re on a web design and technology website – you’re probably very much aware of the coming of 5G networks. We hesitate even to call it ‘coming’ any more – in various parts of the world, 5G is already a reality. China rolled out its nationwide 5G network in November 2019, some European countries including the United Kingdom switched 5G networks on in the middle of 2019, and in the United States of America you may or may not have access to it depending on where you live, and which provider you use. 5G is here. The Genie is out of the bottle, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the dominant network in the majority of advanced countries. Just as surely as 3G gave way to 4G, 4G is preparing to pass the baton on to 5G.
As a web designer, you may be under the impression that this doesn’t affect you – and you might be right. Your job is, after all, to create websites that look good and function well regardless of the connection speed of the user, and in some cases, regardless of which device they use to connect to the website with. Whether they’re using fiber-optic broadband on a laptop or a 4G mobile data connection, so long as your website works for them, you’ve done what you were paid to do. For now, you’re right. But will that still be the case one or two years from now?
If you’ve been involved in web design for a long time and work on multiple platforms, you may remember WAP. For our younger readers, WAP was what we (briefly) had before the arrival of the ‘real’ mobile internet. Between the years 2000 and 2007, WAP was the way internet connections worked on phones. Phones weren’t ‘smart’ back then, and the idea of using the internet on them was novel. It was slow, and it was limited, but people loved it because it seemed like a huge leap forward in technology, and various publications hailed it as the way of the future. There was just one problem. Designing a website to work on a (probably desktop) computer and designing a website to work on a WAP-enabled phone were two very different things.
As WAP was apparently here to stay, many web designers made merry during those early years of internet phones. They designed new websites for companies that wanted their customers to have optimized web experiences through their phones. They amended existing websites to work on mobile displays. They thought the good times would last forever, and they were caught out when Apple released the first iPhone in 2007. The iPhone had no need for WAP. It could go directly to the internet. The internet on an iPhone looked the same as the internet on a laptop, and it was clear that WAP’s days were numbered. Two years later, 4G became active, connection speeds increased exponentially, and WAP, as far as mobile phone technology goes, became obsolete. Those who’d failed to adjust found themselves left behind and all those WAP-friendly websites that businesses had paid web designers handsomely were redundant.
Is this about to happen again? Will 5G rip up the existing standards and leave websites obsolete either by way of looking dated or inability to function? Probably a no to the latter, but a yes to the former. The huge increase in speed will mean that high-quality images are likely to become commonplace, and 4K videos will be easy to stream wirelessly on an average connection. Hero images in the background of websites will no longer be enough. People will become accustomed to seeing impressive video content everywhere else they look, and if you can’t do the same for your customers, you’ll likely find that your customers wander off. To cut a long story short, all the things you’ve been leaving out of web design for years are no longer off the menu. You no longer have to worry about lag, waiting times, bandwidth, or loading times. They’ll become considerations of the past, laughed at in ten years the same way WAP is laughed at today.
This probably feels like the opposite of everything you’ve been told for the past five years. Web designers have been told that pages are too bloated and clunky, and ease of access is everything. They’ve been told to ditch Java and Flash – languages which are in the last of their death throes – and focus on HTML5. Cut back, use more white space, emphasize speed and minimalism, and never include video content because customers hate it. All of that advice is true for the era we live in right now. It won’t be true for the coming era of 5G, when videos no longer cause delays in page loading times.
Are we moving too quickly, though? 5G is only just emerging now. Most of the world doesn’t have access to it, and even if it did, the majority of current mobile handsets can’t connect to it. We need to wait until 5G is available everywhere, and more users have 5G enabled handsets before we can truly focus on catering for this new wave of customers and content-hungry web users. 4G and 5G seem destined to live side by side for two or three years, each accessing the same websites and seeing the same things, but with one moving far more quickly than the other. We know that change is coming, but how should we know when to move from focusing on the existing technology to focusing on the new?
There’s always a strange barometer you can use for changes in web design culture and web design practicality, and it’s an industry that most people never think to look at. It’s the casino industry. Online slots websites like Amigoslots.com were some of the first in the world to jump across to a purely HTML5-driven format, and it’s because it allowed them to harmonize the user experience on both PC and mobile devices. It’s unlikely you’ll find any online slots websites hiding behind a video introduction right now, either – they focus on efficiency, and getting players in front of their games as quickly as possible. When the first major online slots website suddenly begins to offer a virtual reality casino experience by way of default, and their online slots are suddenly hyper-realistic virtual and video slots, it will be a signal to the rest of the world that web design standards are ready to change.
Right now, as a web designer, you should be learning as much as you can about 5G, and what the average 5G connection speed will be able to cope with. You should also look into what it means for 3D modeling and 4K video on websites. You may not need to use that knowledge right now – but if you don’t have it when the time comes, you’re in danger of being left behind.