To be blunt, I feel we, the folks who have been involved with designing and developing for the web for a significant period of time–including me as I feel a strong sense of personal responsibility here–are in no small part responsible for it falling far short of its promise.
Monday, October 19th, 2020
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
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.
Monday, July 27th, 2020
John weighs in on the clashing priorities of browser vendors.
Imagine if the web never got CSS. Never got a way to style content in sophisticated ways. It’s hard to imagine its rise to prominence in the early 2000s. I’d not be alone in arguing a similar lack of access to the sort of features inherent to the mobile experience that WebKit and the folks at Mozilla have expressed concern about would (not might) largely consign the Web to an increasingly marginal role.
Wednesday, July 8th, 2020
A trashcan, a tyepface, and a tactile keyboard. Marcin gets obsessive (as usual).
Wednesday, January 8th, 2020
From Xerox PARC to the World Wide Web:
The internet did not use a visual spatial metaphor. Despite being accessed through and often encompassed by the desktop environment, the internet felt well and truly placeless (or perhaps everywhere). Hyperlinks were wormholes through the spatial metaphor, allowing a user to skip laterally across directories stored on disparate servers, as well as horizontally, deep into a file system without having to access the intermediate steps. Multiple windows could be open to the same website at once, shattering the illusion of a “single file” that functioned as a piece of paper that only one person could hold. The icons that a user could arrange on the desktop didn’t have a parallel in online space at all.
Friday, December 8th, 2017
This 1993 article by Mark Weiser is relevant to our world today.
Take intelligent agents. The idea, as near as I can tell, is that the ideal computer should be like a human being, only more obedient. Anything so insidiously appealing should immediately give pause. Why should a computer be anything like a human being? Are airplanes like birds, typewriters like pens, alphabets like mouths, cars like horses? Are human interactions so free of trouble, misunderstanding, and ambiguity that they represent a desirable computer interface goal? Further, it takes a lot of time and attention to build and maintain a smoothly running team of people, even a pair of people. A computer I need to talk to, give commands to, or have a relationship with (much less be intimate with), is a computer that is too much the center of attention.
Friday, March 24th, 2017
Steps you can take to secure your phone and computer. This is especially useful in countries where ubiquitous surveillance is not only legal, but mandated by law (such as China, Australia, and the UK).
Sunday, January 22nd, 2017
Under the hood it’s the same Blink engine that power’s the regular Opera browser (and Chrome) but I really like the interface on this experiment. It’s described as being a “concept browser”, much like a “concept car”, which is a nice way of framing experiments like this. More concept browsers please!
Wednesday, August 24th, 2016
Yummy wallpapers for your desktop, tablet, and phone, from NASA and ESA.
Saturday, June 13th, 2015
I’d like to do this for all Clearleft web projects.
How important is mobile for @nytimes? We’re blocking access to our home page on desktop in our building.
Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
I can relate 100% to what Dave is saying here:
I’m disenchanted with desktop. That conviction runs so deep, I groan when I see a desktop layout JPEG.
All too often we talk the talk about taking a mobile first approach, but we rarely walk the walk. Most designers and developers still think of the small-screen viewport as the exception, not the norm.
Monday, November 17th, 2014
This isn’t a scientific data sample, but Jonathan’s anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that most web designers and developers are still thinking with a desktop-first mentality. Which is crazy.
Monday, October 28th, 2013
Dan Bricklin—co-creator of the original VisiCalc spreadsheet—turns his attention to responsive design, specifically for input-centric tasks.
Tuesday, June 4th, 2013
Details on how the BBC Responsive News team plan to eventually make their m-dot site scale all the way up to be the default site. This “planting a seed” approach works really well, not least for political reasons.
Saturday, February 23rd, 2013
A great meaty piece from Cennydd, diving deep into the tricky question of context.
Monday, February 18th, 2013
Designing for Touch by Josh Clark
Josh the Touchmaster is here at An Event Apart Atlanta to tell us about Designing for Touch.
Science! Science and web design. As Scott said, a lot of what we’re doing now is checking the nuances of things we’ve been doing all along. We’re testing our assumptions.
We had web standards. Then we had responsive design. Now there’s a new revelation: there is no one true input for the web.
There are lots of new input mechanisms coming down the pipe, but right now the biggest new one is touch. This talk is about designing for touch.
As of last month, 31% of US adults have tablets. A few years ago, it was zero. The iPad is the fastest-growing consumer product in the history of consumer products. But touch isn’t just for mobile phones and tablets. Touch is on the desktop now too. All desktop web designs have to be touch-friendly now.
The ugly truth is that we’ve thought of web design as primarily a visual design medium. But when you add touch into the mix, it gets physical. It’s no longer just about how your pixels look; it’s about how they feel too. You are not “just” a visual designer now. There are portions of industrial design in what you do: honest-to-goodness ergonomics. In a sense, you’re designing a physical device, because it will be explored by hands. Phones and tablets are blank slates. We provide the interface. How will it feel in the user’s hands? More specifically, how will it feel in one hand?
Thumbs are fantastic. The thumb, along with celebrity gossip, is what separates us from the beasts. There’s a natural thumb-resting area on the iPhone (coming from the bottom left to the centre). That’s why positioning conventions have evolved they way have on iOS—very differently to the desktop: navigation at the bottom instead of the top.
There’s an age-old principle in industrial design: content at the top; controls at the bottom. Now we see that in iOS. But in Android there are assistive buttons at the bottom (just as the industrial design maxim suggests). But now if you put your controls at the bottom too, you’ve got too much going on. So on Android you should be putting your controls at the top. But the drawback is that this is no longer in the thumb-sweeping area.
That’s iOS and Android. What about the web?
There are problems with pinning navigation to either the top or bottom. First of all,
position: fixed is really screwy on mobile browsers. Secondly, in landscape (or other limited-height environments), the controls take up far too much room compared to the content. The third problem is also related to space: browser chrome.
Instead, a better pattern is to have a menu control that reveals navigation. The simplest version is when this is simply an internal link to navigation at the bottom of the page. As Luke says, forget HTML5: this is HTML1. Best of all, this pattern leads with the content and follows it with the navigation.
So that’s where things stand with touch navigation on phones:
- iOS: Controls at screen bottom.
- Android: Controls at screen top.
- Web: Controls at page bottom.
What about tablets? This is more likely to be a two-handed grip. Now having controls at the bottom would be really hostile to touch. The phone thumb-zone no longer applies, but thumbs still matter because they could be obscuring controls. Your thumbs are more likely to be on the sides, with easy reach to the top. So put controls in those regions where thumbs can come to rest: the side.
There are some cases where bottom navigation is okay: in an ebook where you’re showing a complicated control …or a map with a draggable interface below it. When you need a control to do browsing or preview for the content above it, the bottom is okay.
The unholy alliance: a laptop with a keyboard combined with a touch-enabled screen. There are lots of them coming down the line.
Mouse and trackpad usage drops off a lot on hybrid devices. There was always the fear of “gorilla arms” with hybrid devices but it turns out that people are gripping the sides of the screen (like a tablet) but when people are jabbing the screen, it’s more like a phone. If you overlay the thumb comfort zone of a hybrid laptop with the thumb comfort zone of a tablet, there’s one area that’s left out: the top …exactly where we put our navigation on laptop/desktop screens.
This is a headache for responsive design. We’ve been correlating small screens with touch. It turns out that screen size is a lousy way to detect a touchscreen. And it’s hard to detect support for touch. So, for now, we’re really just guessing.
But we have top men working on the problem. Top. Men. There’s a proposal in CSS4 for a
pointer property. But even then, what will a hybrid device report if it supports trackpad, keyboard, mouse and touch?
All desktop designs have to be touch-friendly. This is going to require a big change in our thinking. For a start, it’s time to bid farewell to hover events, certainly for crucial content …maybe it can be used for enhancements.
Given the thumb zones on tablets and hybrids, we can start putting frequent controls down the side—controls that stay in view even when the content is scrolled. Just to be clear: don’t put your main navigation there—put the controls that people actually use. Sorry, but people don’t actually use your main navigation. People use main navigation only as a last resort.
Quartz uses a very thumb-friendly layout. But how big should the touch targets be? It turns out …seven millimeters; the tip of a finger. Use nine millimeters if you really need to be safe.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not using millimeter as a unit in my CSS. But standards can help here. A pixel is defined in CSS2.1 to have a set millimeter size. But that doesn’t factor in the reality of dynamic viewports: zooming, pinching, scaling. Devices still report they’re actual physical size; the hardware pixels, that have nothing to do with the calculated web pixels.
On the iPhone we arrive at this magical 44 pixel number, which is repeated over and over throughout the UI. As long as one dimension is 44 pixels, you can squeeze the other dimension down to 29 pixels: 44x29 or 29x44. On iOS, that unit is repeated for a rhythm that just feels right: 44, 88, etc. The interface is designed not just for the hand, but of the hand. Use that rhythm, even on desktop screens.
That’s lovely and elegant. Digital watches are not. Touch targets need to be a certain size.
Now these optimisations mean there’s inevitably some constraint. But that can be a good thing: you might have to reduce what’s on your screen, and that means that your interface will be more focused. Clarity trumps density.
But simplicity isn’t always a good thing. Complexity has become a dirty word, but sometimes it’s needed. People don’t want a dumbed-down interface that won’t let them do everything.
And when you don’t have space constraints, that doesn’t mean you should fill up the space with crap. Aim for clarity, no matter what the size of the screen. On a smaller screen, that can be a more conversational, back-and-forth interaction, requesting and revealing information; question, answer; ask, receive. This progressive disclosure requires more taps, but that’s okay. Extra taps and clicks aren’t evil. When done right, they can actually be better because they provide clarity and invite conversation. As long as every tap is a quality tap that provides information, and helps complete a task, they are not evil.
But the long scroll …that is evil. That’s how kittens get killed.
Luke has documented the off-canvas pattern as a way of pushing some information off-screen. It’s kind of like a carousel. So instead of everything being stacked vertically, there can be sections that are navigated horizontally. That’s what Josh and Ethan did on the site for People magazine on small screens.
So for desktop interfaces, these are the points to remember:
- Hover is an enhancement
- Bottom left for controls.
- Big touch targets.
- 44px rhythm.
- Progressive disclosure.
But even though Josh has been talking all about the touch interface, it’s worth remembering that sometimes the best interface is no interface at all. And we need to stop thinking about input mechanisms as singular things: they can be combined. Think about speech + gesture: it’s literally like magic (think: Harry Potter casting a spell). Aral’s hackday project—where he throws content from the phone to the Kinect—gets a round of applause. Now we’ve got Leap Motion on its way. These things are getting more affordable and available. So we could be bypassing touch completely. We can move the interface off the screen entirely. How can we start replacing clumsy touch with the combination of all these sensors?
Digital is growing more physical. Physical is growing more digital. Our job is becoming less about pixels on screens and more about interacting with the world. We have to be willing to challenge established patterns. We have to think. We have to use our brains.
Friday, January 4th, 2013
A great piece by Jason analysing the ever-blurring lines between device classes.
Mind you, there is one question he doesn’t answer which would help clear up his framing of the situation. That question is:
What’s a web app?
Monday, November 12th, 2012
David takes a look at worldwide trends in web browsing, pointing out where mobile traffic exceeds desktop …and we’re not necessarily talking about smartphones here either.
It would be possible to travel from the Niger Delta on the west coast of Africa, to the horn of Africa on the east coast, without passing through a country where people surf more on desktop than a mobile phone.
Monday, August 13th, 2012
A nice visualisation of Apple’s transition From desktop to mobile over ten years, one Daring Fireball article at a time.
Oh, and happy birthday, Daring Fireball.
Monday, July 16th, 2012
Remember when I linked to the story of Twitter’s recent redesign of their mobile site and I said it would be great to see it progressively enhanced up to the desktop version? Well, here’s a case study that does just that.