Tags: android

3

sparkline

The web on my phone

It’s funny how times have changed. Remember back in the 90s when Microsoft—quite rightly—lost an anti-trust case? They were accused of abusing their monopolistic position in the OS world to get an unfair advantage in the browser world. By bundling a copy of Internet Explorer with every copy of Windows, they were able to crush the competition from Netscape.

Mind you, it was still possible to install a Netscape browser on a Windows machine. Could you imagine if Microsoft had tried to make that impossible? There would’ve been hell to pay! They wouldn’t have had a legal leg to stand on.

Yet here we are two decades later and that’s exactly what an Operating System vendor is doing. The Operating System is iOS. It’s impossible to install a non-Apple browser onto an Apple mobile computer. For some reason, the fact that it’s a mobile device (iPhone, iPad) makes it different from a desktop-bound device running OS X. Very odd considering they’re all computers.

“But”, I hear you say, “What about Chrome for iOS? Firefox for iOS? Opera for iOS?”

Chrome for iOS is not Chrome. Firefox for iOS is not Firefox. Opera for iOS is not Opera. They are all using WebKit. They’re effectively the same as Mobile Safari, just with different skins.

But there won’t be any anti-trust case here.

I think it’s a real shame. Partly, I think it’s a shame because as a developer, I see an Operating System being let down by its browser. But mostly, I think it’s a shame because I use an iPhone and I’m being let down by its browser.

It’s kind of ironic, because when the iPhone first launched, it was all about the web apps. Remember, there was no App Store for the first year of the iPhone’s life. If you wanted to build an app, you had to use web technologies. Apple were ahead of their time. Alas, the web technologies weren’t quite up to the task back in 2007. These days, though, there are web technologies landing in browsers that are truly game-changing.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m very excited about Service Workers. It’s doubly exciting to see the efforts the Chrome on Android team are making to make the web a first-class citizen. As Remy put it:

If I add this app to my home screen, it will work when I open it.

I’d like to be able to use Chrome, Firefox, or Opera on my iPhone—real Chrome, real Firefox, or real Opera; not a skinned version of Safari. Right now the only way for me to switch browsers is to switch phones. Switching phones is a pain in the ass, but I’m genuinely considering it.

Whereas I’m all talk, Henrik has taken action. Like me, he doesn’t actually care about the Operating System. He cares about the browser:

Android itself bores me, honestly. There’s nothing all that terribly new or exciting here.’

save one very important detail…

IT’S CURRENTLY THE BEST MOBILE WEB APP PLATFORM

That’s true for now. The pole position for which browser is “best” is bound to change over time. The point is that locking me into one particular browser on my phone doesn’t sit right with me. It’s not very …webby.

I’m sure that Apple are not quaking in their boots at the thought of myself or Henrik switching phones. We are minuscule canaries in a very niche mine.

But what should give Apple pause for thought is the user experience they can offer for using the web. If they gain a reputation for providing a sub-par web experience compared to the competition, then maybe they’ll have to make the web a first-class citizen.

If I want to work towards that, switching phones probably won’t help. But what might help is following Alex’s advice in his answer to the question “What do we do about Safari?”:

What we do about Safari is we make websites amazing …and then they can’t not implement.

I’ll be doing that here on adactio, over on The Session (and Huffduffer when I get around to overhauling it), making progressively enhanced, accessible, offline-first, performant websites.

I’ll also be doing it at Clearleft. If you work at an organisation that wants a progressively-enhanced, accessible, offline-first, performant website, we should talk.

Brighton device lab

People of Brighton (and environs), I have a reminder for you. Did you know that there is an open device lab in the Clearleft office?

That’s right! You can simply pop in at any time and test your websites on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Kindles, and more.

The address is 68 Middle Street. Ring the “Clearleft” buzzer and say you’re there to use the device lab.. There’ll always be somebody in the office. They’ll buzz you in and you can take the lift to the first floor. No need to make a prior appointment—feel free to swing by whenever you like.

There is no catch. You show up, test your sites on whatever devices you want, and maybe even stick around for a cup of tea.

Tell your friends.

I was doing a little testing this morning, helping Charlotte with a pesky bug that was cropping up on an iPad running iOS 8. To get the bottom of the issue, I needed to be able to inspect the DOM on the iPad. That turns out to be fairly straightforward (as of iOS 6):

  1. Plug the device into a USB port on your laptop using a lightning cable.
  2. Open Safari on the device and navigate to the page you want to test.
  3. Open Safari on your laptop.
  4. From the “Develop” menu in your laptop’s Safari, select the device.
  5. Use the web inspector on your laptop’s Safari to inspect elements to your heart’s content.

It’s a similar flow for Android devices:

  1. Plug the device into a USB port on your laptop.
  2. Open Chrome on the device and navigate to the page you want to test.
  3. Open Chrome on your laptop.
  4. Type chrome://inspect into the URL bar of Chrome on your laptop.
  5. Select the device.
  6. On the device, grant permission (a dialogue will have appeared by now).
  7. Use developer tools on your laptop’s Chrome to inspect elements to your heart’s content.

Using web inspector in Safari to inspect elements on a web page open on an iOS device. Using developer tools in Chrome to inspect elements on a web page open on an Android device.

Browsiness

Cennydd wrote a really good post recently called Why don’t designers take Android seriously?

I completely agree with his assessment that far too many developers are ignoring or dismissing Android for two distasteful reasons:

  1. Android is difficult
  2. User behaviours are different:

Put uncharitably, the root issue is “Android users are poor”.

But before that, Cennydd compares the future trajectories of other platforms and finds them wanting in comparison to Android: Windows, iOS, …the web.

On that last comparison, I (unsurprisingly) disagree. But it’s not because I think the web is a superior platform; it’s because I don’t think the web is a platform at all.

I wrote about this last month:

The web is not a platform. It’s a continuum.

I think it’s a category error to compare the web to Android or Windows or iOS. It’s like comparing Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and liquid. The web is something that permeates the platforms. From one point of view, this appears to make the web less than the operating system that someone happens to be using to access it. But in the same way that a chicken is an egg’s way of reproducing and a scientist is the universe’s way of observing itself, an operating system is the web’s way of providing access to itself.

Wait a minute, though …Cennydd didn’t actually compare Android to the web. He compared Android to the web browser. Like I’ve said before:

We talk about “the browser” when we should be talking about the browsers. I’m guilty of this. I’ll use phrases like “designing in the browser” or talk about “what we can do in the browser”, when really I should be talking about designing in the browsers and what we can do in the browsers.

But Cennydd’s comparison does raise an interesting question: what is a web browser exactly? Answering that question probably requires an answer to the question: what is the web?

(At this point you might be thinking, “Ah, this is just semantics!” and you’d be right. Abandon ship here if you feel that way. But to describe something as “just semantics” is like pointing at all the written works in every library and saying “but they’re just words”, or taking in the entire trajectory of human civilisation and saying “but those are just ideas”. So yeah, this is “just” semantics.)

So what is the web? Well the unsexy definition I’ve used in the past is that the web consists of files (e.g. HTML, CSS, JavaScript), accessible at URLs, delivered over HTTP. So FTP is not the web. Email is not the web. Gopher is not the web.

But to be honest, I don’t think that the Hypertext Transfer Protocol is the important part of the web; it’s the URLs that really matter. It’s the addressability of the files that’s the killer app of the web in my opinion.

I also don’t think that it’s the file formats themselves that define the web. Don’t get me wrong: I love HTML …and I have nothing against CSS or JavaScript. But if HTML were to disappear, the tears I would weep would not be so much for the format itself, but for the two decades of culture that have been stored with it.

I was re-reading Weaving The Web and in that book, Tim Berners-Lee describes his surprise when people started using HTML to mark up their content. He expected HTML to be used for indices that would point to the URLs of the actual content, which could be in any file format (PDF, word processessing documents, or whatever). It turned out that HTML had just enough expressiveness and grokability to be used instead of those other formats.

So I certainly don’t consider anything that happens to be written using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to automatically be a part of the web. I can open up a text editor and make an HTML document but as long as it sits on my computer instead of being addressable by a URL, it’s not part of the web. Likewise, a native app might be powered by CSS and JavaScript under the hood, but without a URL, it’s not part of the web.

Perhaps then, a web browser is something that can access URLs. Certainly in pretty much every example of a web browser throughout the web’s history, the URL has been front and centre: if the web were a platform, the URL bar would be its command line.

But, like the rise of HTML, the visibility of the URL in a web browser is an accident of history. It was added almost as an afterthought as a power-user feature: why would most people care what the URL of the content happens to be? It’s the content itself that matters, and you’d get to that content not by typing URLs, but by following hyperlinks.

There’s an argument to be made that, with the rise of search engines, the visibility of URLs has become less important. See, for example, the way that every advertisement for a website on the Tokyo subway doesn’t show a URL; it shows what to type into a search engine instead (and I’ve started seeing this in some TV adverts here in the UK too).

So a web browser that doesn’t expose the URLs of what it’s rendering is still a web browser.

Now imagine a browser that you install on your device that doesn’t expose URLs, but under the hood it is navigating between URLs using HTTP, and rendering the content (images, JavaScript, CSS, HTML, JSON, whatever). That’s a pretty good description of many native apps. There’s a whole category of native apps that could just as easily be described as “artisanal web browsers” (and if someone wants to write a browser extension that replaces every mention of “native app” with “artisanal web browser” that would be just peachy).

Instagram’s native app is a web browser.

Facebook’s native app is a web browser.

Twitter’s native app is a web browser.

Like Paul said:

Monolithic browsers are not the only User Agent.

I was initially confused when Anna tweeted:

Reading the responses to @Cennydd’s tweet about designers needing to pay attention to Android. The web is fragmented. That’s our job.

I understood Cennydd’s point to be about native apps, not the web. But if, as I’ve just said, many native apps are in fact web browsers, does that mean that making native apps is a form of web development?

I don’t think so. I think making a native app has much more in common with making a web browser than it does with making a web site/app/thang. Certainly the work that Clearleft has done in this area felt that way: the Channel 4 News app is a browser for Channel 4 News; the Evo iPad app is a browser for Evo.

So if your job involves making browsers like those, then yes, you absolutely should be paying more attention to Android, for all the reasons that Cennydd suggests.

But if, like me, you have zero interest in making browsers—whether it’s a browser for Android, iOS, OS X, Windows, Blackberry, Linux, or NeXT—you should still be paying attention to Android because it’s just one of the many ways that people will be accessing the web.

It’s all too easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that people will only be using traditional monolithic web browsers to access what we build. The truth is that our work will be accessed on the desktop, on mobile, and on tablets, but also on watches, on televisions, and sure, even fridges, but also on platforms that may not even have screens.

It’s certainly worth remembering that what you make will be viewed in the context of an artisanal browser. Like Jen says:

The “native apps are better” argument ignores the fact one of the most popular things to do in apps is read the web.

But just because we know that our work will be accessed on a whole range of devices and platforms doesn’t mean that we should optimise for those specific devices and platforms. That just won’t scale. The only sane future-friendly approach is to take a device-agnostic, platform-agnostic approach and deliver something that’s robust enough to work in this stunningly-wide range of browsers and user-agents (hint: progressive enhancement is your friend).

I completely agree with Cennydd: I think that ignoring Android is narrow-minded, blinkered and foolish …but I feel the same way about ignoring Windows, Blackberry, Nokia, or the Playstation. I also think it would be foolish to focus on any one of those platforms at the expense of others.

I love the fact that the web can be accessed on so many platforms and devices by so many different kinds of browsers. I only wish there more: more operating systems, more kinds of devices, more browsers. Any platform that allows more people to access the web is good with me. That’s why I, like Cennydd, welcome the rise of Android.

Stop seeing fragmentation. Start seeing diversity.