Journal tags: install

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Web browsers on iOS

Safari is the only browser on iOS devices.

I don’t mean it’s the only browser that ships with iOS devices. I mean it’s the only browser that can be installed on iOS devices.

You can install something called Chrome. You can install something called Firefox. Those aren’t different web browsers. Under the hood they’re using Safari’s rendering engine. They have to. The app store doesn’t allow other browsers to be listed. The apps called Chrome and Firefox are little more than skinned versions of Safari.

If you’re a web developer, there are two possible reactions to hearing this. One is “Duh! Everyone knows that!”. The other is “What‽ I never knew that!”

If you fall into the first category, I’m guessing you’ve been a web developer for a while. The fact that Safari is the only browser on iOS devices is something you’ve known for years, and something you assume everyone else knows. It’s common knowledge, right?

But if you’re relatively new to web development—heck, if you’ve been doing web development for half a decade—you might fall into the second category. After all, why would anyone tell you that Safari is the only browser on iOS? It’s common knowledge, right?

So that’s the situation. Safari is the only browser that can run on iOS. The obvious follow-on question is: why?

Apple at this point will respond with something about safety and security, which are certainly important priorities. So let me rephrase the question: why on iOS?

Why can I install Chrome or Firefox or Edge on my Macbook running macOS? If there are safety or security reasons for preventing me from installing those browsers on my iOS device, why don’t those same concerns apply to my macOS device?

At one time, the mobile operating system—iOS—was quite different to the desktop operating system—OS X. Over time the gap has narrowed. At this point, the operating systems are converging. That makes sense. An iPhone, an iPad, and a Macbook aren’t all that different apart from the form factor. It makes sense that computing devices from the same company would share an underlying operating system.

As this convergence continues, the browser question is going to have to be decided in one direction or the other. As it is, Apple’s laptops and desktops strongly encourage you to install software from their app store, though it is still possible to install software by other means. Perhaps they’ll decide that their laptops and desktops should only be able to install software from their app store—a decision they could justify with safety and security concerns.

Imagine that situation. You buy a computer. It comes with one web browser pre-installed. You can’t install a different web browser on your computer.

You wouldn’t stand for it! I mean, Microsoft got fined for anti-competitive behaviour when they pre-bundled their web browser with Windows back in the 90s. You could still install other browsers, but just the act of pre-bundling was seen as an abuse of power. Imagine if Windows never allowed you to install Netscape Navigator?

And yet that’s exactly the situation in 2020.

You buy a computing device from Apple. It might be a Macbook. It might be an iPad. It might be an iPhone. But you can only install your choice of web browser on one of those devices. For now.

It is contradictory. It is hypocritical. It is indefensible.

Install prompt

There’s an interesting thread on Github about the tongue-twistingly named beforeinstallpromt JavaScript event.

Let me back up…

Progressive web apps. You know what they are, right? They’re websites that have taken their vitamins. Specifically, they’re responsive websites that:

  1. are served over HTTPS,
  2. have a web app manifest, and
  3. have a service worker handling the offline scenario.

The web app manifest—a JSON file of metadata—is particularly useful for describing how your site should behave if someone adds it to their home screen. You can specify what icon should be used. You can specify whether the site should launch in a browser or as a standalone app (practically indistinguishable from a native app). You can specify which URL on the site should be used as the starting point when the site is launched from the home screen.

So progressive web apps work just fine when you visit them in a browser, but they really shine when you add them to your home screen. It seems like pretty much everyone is in agreement that adding a progressive web app to your home screen shouldn’t be an onerous task. But how does the browser let the user know that it might be a good idea to “install” the web site they’re looking at?

The Samsung Internet browser does ambient badging—a + symbol shows up to indicate that a website can be installed. This is a great approach!

I hope that Chrome on Android will also use ambient badging at some point. To start with though, Chrome notified users that a site was installable by popping up a notification at the bottom of the screen. I think these might be called “toasts”.

Getting the “add to home screen” prompt for https://huffduffer.com/ on Android Chrome. And there’s the “add to home screen” prompt for https://html5forwebdesigners.com/ HTTPS + manifest.json + Service Worker = “Add to Home Screen” prompt. Add to home screen.

Needless to say, the toast notification wasn’t very effective. That’s because we web designers and developers have spent years teaching people to immediately dismiss those notifications without even reading them. Accept our cookies! Sign up to our newsletter! Install our native app! Just about anything that’s user-hostile gets put in a notification (either a toast or an overlay) and shoved straight in the user’s face before they’ve even had time to start reading the content they came for in the first place. Users will then either:

  1. turn around and leave, or
  2. use muscle memory reach for that X in the corner of the notification.

A tiny fraction of users might actually click on the call to action, possibly by mistake.

Chrome didn’t abandon the toast notification for progressive web apps, but it did change when they would appear. Rather than the browser deciding when to show the prompt—usually when the user has just arrived on the site—a new JavaScript event called beforeinstallprompt can be used.

It’s a bit weird though. You have to “capture” the event that fires when the prompt would have normally been shown, subdue it, hold on to that event, and then re-release it when you think it should be shown (like when the user has completed a transaction, for example, and having your site on the home screen would genuinely be useful). That’s a lot of hoops. Here’s the code I use on The Session to only show the installation prompt to users who are logged in.

The end result is that the user is still shown a toast notification, but at least this time it’s the site owner who has decided when it will be shown. The Chrome team call this notification “the mini-info bar”, and Pete acknowledges that it’s not ideal:

The mini-infobar is an interim experience for Chrome on Android as we work towards creating a consistent experience across all platforms that includes an install button into the omnibox.

I think “an install button in the omnibox” means ambient badging in the browser interface, which would be great!

Anyway, back to that thread on Github. Basically, neither Apple nor Mozilla are going to implement the beforeinstallprompt event (well, technically Mozilla have implemented it but they’re not going to ship it). That’s fair enough. It’s an interim solution that’s not ideal for all reasons I’ve already covered.

But there’s a lot of pushback. Even if the details of beforeinstallprompt are troublesome, surely there should be some way for site owners to let users know that can—or should—install a progressive web app? As a site owner, I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint. But I also understand the security and usability issues that can arise from bad actors abusing this mechanism.

Still, I have to hand it to Chrome: even if we put the beforeinstallprompt event to one side, the browser still has a mechanism for letting users know that a progressive web app can be installed—the mini info bar. It’s not a great mechanism, but it’s better than nothing. Nothing is precisely what Firefox and Safari currently offer (though Firefox is experimenting with something).

In the case of Safari, not only do they not provide a mechanism for letting the user know that a site can be installed, but since the last iOS update, they’ve buried the “add to home screen” option even deeper in the “sharing sheet” (the list of options that comes up when you press the incomprehensible rectangle-with-arrow-emerging-from-it icon). You now have to scroll below the fold just to find the “add to home screen” option.

So while I totally get the misgivings about beforeinstallprompt, I feel that a constructive alternative wouldn’t go amiss.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Except… there’s another interesting angle to that Github thread. There’s talk of allowing sites that are launched from the home screen to have access to more features than a site inside a web browser. Usually permissions on the web are explicitly granted or denied on a case-by-case basis: geolocation; notifications; camera access, etc. I think this is the first time I’ve heard of one action—adding to the home screen—being used as a proxy for implicitly granting more access. Very interesting. Although that idea seems to be roundly rejected here:

A key argument for using installation in this manner is that some APIs are simply so powerful that the drive-by web should not be able to ask for them. However, this document takes the position that installation alone as a restriction is undesirable.

Then again:

I understand that Chromium or Google may hold such a position but Apple’s WebKit team may not necessarily agree with such a position.

Greater expectations

I got an intriguing email recently from someone who’s a member of The Session, the community website about Irish traditional music that I run. They said:

When I recently joined, I used my tablet to join. Somewhere I was able to download The Session app onto my tablet.

But there is no native app for The Session. Although, as it’s a site that I built, it is, a of course, progressive web app.

They went on to say:

I wanted to put the app on my phone but I can’t find the app to download it. Can I have the app on more than one device? If so, where is it available?

I replied saying that yes, you can absolutely have it on more than one device:

But you don’t find The Session app in the app store. Instead you go to the website https://thesession.org and then add it to your home screen from your browser.

My guess is that this person had added The Session to the home screen of their Android tablet, probably following the “add to home screen” prompt. I recently added some code to use the window.beforeinstallprompt event so that the “add to home screen” prompt would only be shown to visitors who sign up or log in to The Session—a good indicator of engagement, I reckon, and it should reduce the chance of the prompt being dismissed out of hand.

So this person added The Session to their home screen—probably as a result of being prompted—and then used it just like any other app. At some point, they didn’t even remember how the app got installed:

Success! I did it. Thanks. My problem was I was looking for an app to download.

On the one hand, this is kind of great: here’s an example where, in the user’s mind, there’s literally no difference between the experience of using a progressive web app and using a native app. Win!

But on the other hand, the expectation is still that apps are to be found in an app store, not on the web. This expectation is something I wrote about recently (and Justin wrote a response to that post). I finished by saying:

Perhaps the inertia we think we’re battling against isn’t such a problem as long as we give people a fast, reliable, engaging experience.

When this member of The Session said “My problem was I was looking for an app to download”, I responded by saying:

Well, I take that as a compliment—the fact that once the site is added to your home screen, it feels just like a native app. :-)

And they said:

Yes, it does!

Installing Progressive Web Apps

When I was testing the dConstruct Audio Archive—which is now a Progressive Web App—I noticed some interesting changes in how Chrome on Android offers the “add to home screen” prompt.

It used to literally say “add to home screen.”

Getting the “add to home screen” prompt for https://huffduffer.com/ on Android Chrome. And there’s the “add to home screen” prompt for https://html5forwebdesigners.com/ HTTPS + manifest.json + Service Worker = “Add to Home Screen” prompt. Add to home screen.

Now it simply says “add.”

The dConstruct Audio Archive is now a Progressive Web App

I vaguely remember there being some talk of changing the labelling, but I could’ve sworn it was going to change to “install”. I’ve got to be honest, just having the word “add” doesn’t seem to provide much context. Based on the quick’n’dirty usability testing I did with some co-workers, it just made things confusing. “Add what?” “What am I adding?”

Additionally, the prompt appeared immediately on the first visit to the site. I thought there was supposed to be an added “engagement” metric in order for the prompt to appear; that the user needs to visit the site more than once.

You’d think I’d be happy that users will be presented with the home-screen prompt immediately, but based on the behaviour I saw, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. Here’s what I observed:

  1. The user types the URL archive.dconstruct.org into the address bar.
  2. The site loads.
  3. The home-screen prompt slides up from the bottom of the screen.
  4. The user immediately moves to dismiss the prompt (cue me interjecting “Don’t close that!”).

This behaviour is entirely unsurprising for three reasons:

  1. We web designers and web developers have trained users to dismiss overlays and pop-ups if they actually want to get to the content. Nobody’s going to bother to actually read the prompt if there’s a 99% chance it’s going to say “Sign up to our newsletter!” or “Take our survey!”.
  2. The prompt appears below the “line of death” so there’s no way to tell it’s a browser or OS-level dialogue rather than a JavaScript-driven pop-up from the site.
  3. Because the prompt now appears on the first visit, no trust has been established between the user and the site. If the prompt only appeared on later visits (or later navigations during the first visit) perhaps it would stand a greater chance of survival.

It’s still possible to add a Progressive Web App to the home screen, but the option to do that is hidden behind the mysterious three-dots-vertically-stacked icon (I propose we call this the shish kebab icon to distinguish it from the equally impenetrable hamburger icon).

I was chatting with Andreas from Mozilla at the View Source conference last week, and he was filling me in on how Firefox on Android does the add-to-homescreen flow. Instead of a one-time prompt, they’ve added a persistent icon above the “line of death” (the icon is a combination of a house and a plus symbol).

When a Firefox 58 user arrives on a website that is served over HTTPS and has a valid manifest, a subtle badge will appear in the address bar: when tapped, an “Add to Home screen” confirmation dialog will slide in, through which the web app can be added to the Android home screen.

This kind of badging also has issues (without the explicit text “add to home screen”, the user doesn’t know what the icon does), but I think a more persistently visible option like this works better than the a one-time prompt.

Firefox is following the lead of the badging approach pioneered by the Samsung Internet browser. It provides a plus symbol that, when pressed, reveals the options to add to home screen or simply bookmark.

What does it mean to be an App?

I don’t think Chrome for Android has any plans for this kind of badging, but they are working on letting the site authors provide their own prompts. I’m not sure this is such a good idea, given our history of abusing pop-ups and overlays.

Sadly, I feel that any solution that relies on an unrequested overlay is doomed. That’s on us. The way we’ve turned browsing the web—especially on mobile—into a frustrating chore of dismissing unwanted overlays is a classic tragedy of the commons. We blew it. Users don’t trust unrequested overlays, and I can’t blame them.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that ambient badging is a better user experience than one-time prompts. That opinion is informed by a meagre amount of testing though. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s been doing more detailed usability testing of both approaches. I assume that Google, Mozilla, and Samsung are doing this kind of testing, and it would be really great to see the data from that (hint, hint).

But it might well be that ambient badging is just too subtle to even be noticed by the user.

On one end of the scale you’ve got the intrusiveness of an add-to-home-screen prompt, but on the other end of the scale you’ve got the discoverability problem of a subtle badge icon. I wonder if there might be a compromise solution—maybe a badge icon that pulses or glows on the first or second visit?

Of course that would also need to be thoroughly tested.