Tags: mobile

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Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

In between

I was chatting with my new colleague Alex yesterday about a link she had shared in Slack. It was the Nielsen Norman Group’s annual State of Mobile User Experience report.

There’s nothing too surprising in there, other than the mention of Apple’s app clips and Google’s instant apps.

Remember those?

Me neither.

Perhaps I lead a sheltered existence, but as an iPhone user, I don’t think I’ve come across a single app clip in the wild.

I remember when they were announced. I was quite worried about them.

See, the one thing that the web can (theoretically) offer that native can’t is instant access to a resource. Go to this URL—that’s it. Whereas for a native app, the flow is: go to this app store, find the app, download the app.

(I say that the benefit is theoretical because the website found at the URL should download quickly—the reality is that the bloat of “modern” web development imperils that advantage.)

App clips—and instant apps—looked like a way to route around the convoluted install process of native apps. That’s why I was nervous when they were announced. They sounded like a threat to the web.

In reality, the potential was never fulfilled (if my own experience is anything to go by). I wonder why people didn’t jump on app clips and instant apps?

Perhaps it’s because what they promise isn’t desirable from a business perspective: “here’s a way for users to accomplish their tasks without downloading your app.” Even though app clips can in theory be a stepping stone to installing the full app, from a user’s perspective, their appeal is the exact opposite.

Or maybe they’re just too confusing to understand. I think there’s an another technology that suffers from the same problem: progressive web apps.

Hear me out. Progressive web apps are—if done well—absolutely amazing. You get all of the benefits of native apps in terms of UX—they even work offline!—but you retain the web’s frictionless access model: go to a URL; that’s it.

So what are they? Are they websites? Yes, sorta. Are they apps? Yes, sorta.

That’s confusing, right? I can see how app clips and instant apps sound equally confusing: “you can use them straight away, like going to a web page, but they’re not web pages; they’re little bits of apps.”

I’m mostly glad that app clips never took off. But I’m sad that progressive web apps haven’t taken off more. I suspect that their fates are intertwined. Neither suffer from technical limitations. The problem they both face is inertia:

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

True of progressive web apps. Equally true of app clips.

But when I was chatting to Alex, she made me look at app clips in a different way. She described a situation where somebody might need to interact with some kind of NFC beacon from their phone. Web NFC isn’t supported in many browsers yet, so you can’t rely on that. But you don’t want to make people download a native app just to have a quick interaction. In theory, an app clip—or instant app—could do the job.

In that situation, app clips aren’t a danger to the web—they’re polyfills for hardware APIs that the web doesn’t yet support!

I love having my perspective shifted like that.

The specific situations that Alex and I were discussing were in the context of museums. Musuems offer such interesting opportunities for the physical and the digital to intersect.

Remember the pen from Cooper Hewitt? Aaron spoke about it at dConstruct 2014—a terrific presentation that’s well worth revisiting and absorbing.

The other dConstruct talk that’s very relevant to this liminal space between the web and native apps is the 2012 talk from Scott Jenson. I always thought the physical web initiative had a lot of promise, but it may have been ahead of its time.

I loved the thinking behind the physical web beacons. They were deliberately dumb, much like the internet itself. All they did was broadcast a URL. That’s it. All the smarts were to be found at the URL itself. That meant a service could get smarter over time. It’s a lot easier to update a website than swap out a piece of hardware.

But any kind of technology that uses Bluetooth, NFC, or other wireless technology has to get over the discovery problem. They’re invisible technologies, so by default, people don’t know they’re even there. But if you make them too discoverable— intrusively announcing themselves like one of the commercials in Minority Report—then they’re indistinguishable from spam. There’s a sweet spot of discoverability right in the middle that’s hard to get right.

Over the past couple of years—accelerated by the physical distancing necessitated by The Situation—QR codes stepped up to the plate.

They still suffer from some discoverability issues. They’re not human-readable, so you can’t be entirely sure that the URL you’re going to go to isn’t going to be a Rick Astley video. But they are visible, which gives them an advantage over hidden wireless technologies.

They’re cheaper too. Printing a QR code sticker costs less than getting a plastic beacon shipped from China.

QR codes turned out to be just good enough to bridge the gap between the physical and digital for those one-off interactions like dining outdoors during a pandemic:

I can see why they chose the web over a native app. Online ordering is the only way to place your order at this place. Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

Ironically, the nail in the coffin for app clips and instant apps might’ve been hammered in by Apple and Google when they built QR-code recognition into their camera software.

Thursday, January 19th, 2023

Three attributes for better web forms

Forms on the web are an opportunity to make big improvements to the user experience with very little effort. The effort can be as little as sprinkling in a smattering of humble HTML attributes. But the result can be a turbo-charged experience for the user, allowing them to sail through their task.

This is particularly true on mobile devices where people have to fill in forms using a virtual keyboard. Any improvement you can make to their flow is worth investigating. But don’t worry: you don’t need to add a complex JavaScript library or write convoluted code. Well-written HTML will get you very far.

If you’re using the right input type value, you’re most of the way there. Browsers on mobile devices can use this value to infer which version of the virtual keyboard is best. So think beyond the plain text value, and use search, email, url, tel, or number when they’re appropriate.

But you can offer more hints to those browsers. Here are three attributes you can add to input elements. All three are enumerated values, which means they have a constrained vocabulary. You don’t need to have these vocabularies memorised. You can look them when you need to.

inputmode

The inputmode attribute is the most direct hint you can give about the virtual keyboard you want. Some of the values are redundant if you’re already using an input type of search, email, tel, or url.

But there might be occasions where you want a keyboard optimised for numbers but the input should also accept other characters. In that case you can use an input type of text with an inputmode value of numeric. This also means you don’t get the spinner controls on desktop browsers that you’d normally get with an input type of number. It can be quite useful to supress the spinner controls for numbers that aren’t meant to be incremented.

If you combine inputmode="numeric" with pattern="[0-9]", you’ll get a numeric keypad with no other characters.

The list of possible values for inputmode is text, numeric, decimal, search, email, tel, and url.

enterkeyhint

Whereas the inputmode attribute provides a hint about which virtual keyboard to show, the enterkeyhint attribute provides an additional hint about one specific key on that virtual keyboard: the enter key.

For search forms, you’ve got an enterkeyhint option of search, and for contact forms, you’ve got send.

The enterkeyhint only changes the labelling of the enter key. On some browsers that label is text. On others it’s an icon. But the attribute by itself doesn’t change the functionality. Even though there are enterkeyhint values of previous and next, by default the enter key will still submit the form. So those two values are less useful on long forms where the user is going from field to field, and more suitable for a series of short forms.

The list of possible values is enter, done, next, previous, go, search, and send.

autocomplete

The autocomplete attribute doesn’t have anything to do with the virtual keyboard. Instead it provides a hint to the browser about values that could pre-filled from the user’s browser profile.

Most browsers try to guess when they can they do this, but they don’t always get it right, which can be annoying. If you explicitly provide an autocomplete hint, browsers can confidently prefill the appropriate value.

Just think about how much time this can save your users!

There’s a name value you can use to get full names pre-filled. But if you have form fields for different parts of names—which I wouldn’t recommend—you’ve also got:

  • given-name,
  • additional-name,
  • family-name,
  • nickname,
  • honorific-prefix, and
  • honorific-suffix.

You might be tempted to use the nickname field for usernames, but no need; there’s a separate username value.

As with names, there’s a single tel value for telephone numbers, but also an array of sub-values if you’ve split telephone numbers up into separate fields:

  • tel-country-code,
  • tel-national,
  • tel-area-code,
  • tel-local, and
  • tel-extension.

There’s a whole host of address-related values too:

  • street-address,
  • address-line1,
  • address-line2, and
  • address-line3, but also
  • address-level1,
  • address-level2,
  • address-level3, and
  • address-level4.

If you have an international audience, addresses can get very messy if you’re trying to split them into separate parts like this.

There’s also postal-code (that’s a ZIP code for Americans), but again, if you have an international audience, please don’t make this a required field. Not every country has postal codes.

Speaking of countries, you’ve got a country-name value, but also a country value for the country’s ISO code.

Remember, the autocomplete value is specifically for the details of the current user. If someone is filling in their own address, use autocomplete. But if someone has specified that, say, a billing address and a shipping address are different, that shipping address might not be the address associated with that person.

On the subject of billing, if your form accepts credit card details, definitely use autocomplete. The values you’ll probably need are:

  • cc-name for the cardholder,
  • cc-number for the credit card number itself,
  • cc-exp for the expiry date, and
  • cc-csc for the security again.

Again, some of these values can be broken down further if you need them: cc-exp-month and cc-exp-year for the month and year of the expiry date, for example.

The autocomplete attribute is really handy for log-in forms. Definitely use the values of email or username as appropriate.

If you’re using two-factor authentication, be sure to add an autocomplete value of one-time-code to your form field. That way, the browser can offer to prefill a value from a text message. That saves the user a lot of fiddly copying and pasting. Phil Nash has more details on the Twilio blog.

Not every mobile browser offers this functionality, but that’s okay. This is classic progressive enhancement. Adding an autocomplete value won’t do any harm to a browser that doesn’t yet understand the value.

Use an autocomplete value of current-password for password fields in log-in forms. This is especially useful for password managers.

But if a user has logged in and is editing their profile to change their password, use a value of new-password. This will prevent the browser from pre-filling that field with the existing password.

That goes for sign-up forms too: use new-password. With this hint, password managers can offer to automatically generate a secure password.

There you have it. Three little HTML attributes that can help users interact with your forms. All you have to do was type a few more characters in your input elements, and users automatically get a better experience.

This is a classic example of letting the browser do the hard work for you. As Andy puts it, be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager:

Give the browser some solid rules and hints, then let it make the right decisions for the people that visit it, based on their device, connection quality and capabilities.

Wednesday, December 21st, 2022

The Performance Inequality Gap, 2023 - Infrequently Noted

It is not an exaggeration to say that modern frontend is so enamoured by post-scarcity fairy tales that it is mortgaging the web’s future for another round of night drinking at the JavaScript party.

Strong—and true—words from Alex.

This isn’t working for users or for businesses that hire developers hopped up Facebook’s latest JavaScript hopium. A correction is due.

I concur.

Frontend’s failure to deliver in today’s mostly-mobile, mostly-Android world is shocking, if only for the durability of the myths that sustain the indefensible. We can’t keep doing this.

If you disagree, I encourage you to dive into the data that Alex shares.

Tuesday, December 13th, 2022

Pluralistic: Web apps could de-monopolize mobile devices (13 Dec 2022) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

But you can’t have a web app without a web-app-compatible browser, and you can’t get a web-app-compatible browser in Apple’s App Store. The only browsers permitted in the App Store are those based on WebKit, the browser engine behind Safari. This means that every browser on iOS, from Firefox to Edge to Chrome, is just a reskinned version of Safari.

Thursday, September 8th, 2022

as days pass by — Farmbound, or how I built an app in 2022

Stuart writes up the process up making a mobile game as a web app—not a native app. The Wordle effect reverberates.

It’s a web app. Works for everyone. And I thought it would be useful to explain why it is, why I think that’s the way to do things, and some of the interesting parts of building an app for everyone to play which is delivered over the web rather than via app stores and downloads.

TIL: You Can Access A User’s Camera with Just HTML

The capture attribute is pretty nifty—and I just love that you get so much power in a declarative way:

<input type="file" accept="image/*" capture="environment">

Thursday, August 11th, 2022

Let websites framebust out of native apps | Holovaty.com

Adrian brings an excellent historical perspective to the horrifying behaviour of Facebook’s in-app browsers:

Somewhere along the way, despite a reasonably strong anti-framing culture, framing moved from being a huge no-no to a huge shrug. In a web context, it’s maligned; in a native app context, it’s totally ignored.

Yup, frames are back—but this time they’re in native apps—with all their shocking security implications:

The more I think about it, the more I cannot believe webviews with unfettered JavaScript access to third-party websites ever became a legitimate, accepted technology. It’s bad for users, and it’s bad for websites.

By the way, this also explains that when you try browsing the web in an actual web browser on your mobile device, every second website shoves a banner in your face saying “download our app.” Browsers offer users some protection. In-app webviews offer users nothing but exploitation.

Monday, July 18th, 2022

My comments to Competition and Markets Authority on mobile browser competition - Alistair Shepherd

A thoughtful response to the current CMA consultation:

The inability to compete with native apps using Progressive Web Apps fully—particularly on iOS—also has a big impact on my work and the businesses I have worked with. Progressive Web Apps are extremely accessible for development, allowing for the creation of a simple app in a fraction of the time and complexity of a native app. This is fantastic for allowing smaller agencies and businesses to innovate on the web and on mobile devices and to reach consumers. However the poor support for PWA features by Safari and by not allowing them in the App Store, Apple forces app development to be difficult, time consuming and extremely expensive. I have spoken with many companies who would have liked an app to compete with their larger competitors but are unable to afford the huge costs in developing a native app.

Get your response in by Friday by emailing browsersandcloud@cma.gov.uk.

Saturday, June 25th, 2022

The Biggest Thing from WWDC 2022 - Webventures

Web Push on iOS will change the “we need to build a native app” decision.

I agree.

Push notifications are definitely not the sole reason to go native, but in my experience, it’s one of the first things clients ask for. They may very well be the thing that pushes your client over the edge and forces them, you and the entire project to accept the logic of the app store model.

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022

News from WWDC22: WebKit Features in Safari 16 Beta | WebKit

Good news and bad news…

The good news is that web notifications are coming to iOS—my number one wish!

The bad news is that it won’t happen until next year sometime.

Tuesday, May 17th, 2022

I Replaced My Native iOS App with a Cross-Platform Web App and No One Noticed

It turns out that in 2022, for a lot of apps, the dream of write once run anywhere has finally arrived.

Every year browsers and web technologies become more capable and more powerful. Every year there are more kinds of app that you can make cross platform.

So before you start your next project, why don’t you take a look at cross platform web apps. Maybe they aren’t right for your project, but maybe, like me, you’ll discover that you can code once and run everywhere. And I think that’s amazing.

Monday, April 4th, 2022

The Unintended Consequences of China Leapfrogging to Mobile Internet · Yiqin Fu

Imagine a world without hyperlinks or search:

Take WeChat as an example. It is home to the vast majority of China’s original writing, and yet:

  1. It doesn’t allow any external links;
  2. Its posts are not indexed by search engines such as Google or Baidu, and its own search engine is practically useless;
  3. You can’t check the author’s other posts if open the page outside of the WeChat app. In other words, each WeChat article is an orphan, not linked to anything else on the Internet, not even the author’s previous work.

Search engine indexing is key to content discovery in the knowledge creation domain, but in a mobile-first world, it is extremely difficult to pull content across the walled gardens, whether or not there is a profit incentive to do so.

Again, the issue here is not censorship. Had China relaxed its speech restrictions, a search start-up would’ve faced the same level of resistance from content platforms when trying to index their content, and content platforms would’ve been equally reluctant to create their own search engines, as they could serve ads and profit without a functional search engine.

Monday, March 7th, 2022

Web notifications on iOS

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t enable notifications on my phone. Text messages are the only exception. I don’t want to get notified if a new email arrives (I avoid email on my phone completely) and I certainly don’t want some social media app telling me somebody liked or faved something.

But the number one feature I’d like to see in Safari on iOS is web notifications.

It’s not for me personally, see. It’s because it’s the number one reason why people are choosing not to go all in progressive web apps.

Safari on iOS is the last holdout. But that equates to enough marketshare that many companies feel they can’t treat notifications as a progressive enhancement. While I may not agree with that decision myself, I get it.

When I’m evangelising the benefits of building on the open web instead of making separate iOS and Android apps, I inevitably get asked about notifications. As long as mobile Safari doesn’t support them—even though desktop Safari does—I’m somewhat stumped. There’s no polyfill for this feature other than building an entire native app, which is a bit extreme as polyfills go.

And of course, unlike on your Mac, you don’t have the option of using a different browser on your iPhone. As long as mobile Safari doesn’t support web notifications, nothing on iOS can support web notifications.

I’ve got progressive web apps on the home screen of my phone that match their native equivalents feature-for-feature. Twitter. Instagram. They’re really good. In some ways they’re superior to the native apps; the Twitter website is much calmer, and the Instagram website has no advertising. But if I wanted to get notifications from any of those sites, I’d have to keep the native apps installed just for that one feature.

So in the spirit of complaining about web browsers in a productive way, I just want to throw this plea out there: Apple, please support web notifications in mobile Safari!

The good news is that web notifications on iOS might be on their way. Huzzah!

Alas, we’re reliant on Maximiliano’s detective work to even get a glimpse of a future feature like this. Apple has no public roadmap for Safari. There’s this status page on the Webkit blog but it’s incomplete—web notifications don’t appear at all. In any case, WebKit and Safari aren’t the same thing. The only way of knowing if a feature might be implemented in Safari is if it shows up in Safari Technology Preview, at which point it’s already pretty far along.

So while my number one feature request for mobile Safari is web notifications, a close second would be a public roadmap.

It only seems fair. If Apple devrels are asking us developers what features we’d like to see implemented—as they should!—then shouldn’t those same developers also be treated with enough respect to share a roadmap with them? There’s not much point in us asking for features if, unbeknownst to us, that feature is already being worked on.

But, like I said, my number one request remains: web notifications on iOS …please!

Sunday, March 6th, 2022

A bug with progressive web apps on iOS

Dave recently wrote some good advice about what to do—and what not to do—when it comes to complaining about web browsers. I wrote something on this topic a little while back:

If there’s something about a web browser that you’re not happy with (or, indeed, if there’s something you’re really happy with), take the time to write it down and publish it

To summarise Dave’s advice, avoid conspiracy theories and snark; stick to specifics instead.

It’s very good advice that I should heed (especially the bit about avoiding snark). In that spirit, I’d like to document what I think is a bug on iOS.

I don’t need to name the specific browser, because there is basically only one browser allowed on iOS. That’s not snark; that’s a statement of fact.

This bug involves navigating from a progressive web app that has been installed on your home screen to an external web view.

To illustrate the bug, I’ll use the example of The Session. If you want to recreate the bug, you’ll need to have an account on The Session. Let me know if you want to set up a temporary account—I can take care of deleting it afterwards.

Here are the steps:

  1. Navigate to thesession.org in Safari on an iOS device.
  2. Add the site to your home screen.
  3. Open the installed site from your home screen—it will launch in standalone mode.
  4. Log in with your username and password.
  5. Using the site menu, navigate to the links section of the site.
  6. Click on any external link.
  7. After the external link opens in a web view, tap on “Done” to close the web view.

Expected behaviour: you are returned to the page you were on with no change of state.

Actual behaviour: you are returned to the page you were on but you are logged out.

So the act of visiting an external link in a web view while in a progressive web app in standalone mode seems to cause a loss of cookie-based authentication.

This isn’t permanent. Clicking on any internal link restores the logged-in state.

It is surprising though. My mental model for opening an external link in a web view is that it sits “above” the progressive web app, which remains in stasis “behind” it. But the page must actually be reloading, either when the web view is opened or when the web view is closed. And that reload is behaving like a fetch event without credentials.

Anyway, that’s my bug report. It may already be listed somewhere on the WebKit Bugzilla but I lack the deductive skills to find it. I’m not even sure if that’s the right place for this kind of bug. It might be specific to the operating system rather than the rendering engine.

This isn’t a high priority bug, but it is one of those cumulatively annoying software paper cuts.

Hope this helps!

Thursday, February 10th, 2022

Why Safari does not need any protection from Chromium – Niels Leenheer

Safari is very opinionated about which features they will support and which they won’t. And that is fine for their browser. But I don’t want the Safari team to choose for all browsers on the iOS platform.

A terrific piece from Niels pushing back on the ridiculous assertion that Apple’s ban on rival rendering engines in iOS is somehow a noble battle against a monopoly (rather than the abuse of monopoly power it actually is). If there were any truth to the idea that Apple’s browser ban is the only thing stopping everyone from switching to Chrome, then nobody would be using Safari on MacOS where users are free to choose whichever rendering engine they want.

The Safari team is capable enough not to let their browser become irrelevant. And Apple has enough money to support the Safari team to take on other browsers. It does not need some artificial App Store rule to protect it from the competition.

WebKit-only proponents are worried about losing control and Google becoming too powerful. And they feel preventing Google from controlling the web is more important than giving more power to users. They believe they are protecting users against themselves. But that is misguided.

Users need to be in control because if you take power away from users, you are creating the future you want to prevent, where one company sets the rules for everybody else. It is just somebody else who is pulling the strings.

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022

2.5.6

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently published an interim report on their mobile ecosystems market study. It’s well worth reading, especially the section on competition in the supply of mobile browsers:

On iOS devices, Apple bans the use of alternative browser engines – this means that Apple has a monopoly over the supply of browser engines on iOS. It also chooses not to implement – or substantially delays – a wide range of features in its browser engine. This restriction has 2 main effects:

  • limiting rival browsers’ ability to differentiate themselves from Safari on factors such as speed and functionality, meaning that Safari faces less competition from other browsers than it otherwise could do; and
  • limiting the functionality of web apps – which could be an alternative to native apps as a means for mobile device users to access online content – and thereby limits the constraint from web apps on native apps. We have not seen compelling evidence that suggests Apple’s ban on alternative browser engines is justified on security grounds.

That last sentence is a wonderful example of British understatement. Far from protecting end users from security exploits, Apple have exposed everyone on iOS to all of the security issues of Apple’s Safari browser (regardless of what brower the user thinks they are using).

The CMA are soliciting responses to their interim report:

To respond to this consultation, please email or post your submission to:

Email: mobileecosystems@cma.gov.uk

Post: 


Mobile Ecosystems Market Study
Competition and Markets Authority

25 Cabot Square

London

E14 4QZ

Please respond by no later than 5pm GMT on 7 February 2022.

I encourage you to send a response before this coming Monday. This is the email I’ve sent.

Hello,

This response is regarding competition in the supply of mobile browsers and contains no confidential information.

I read your interim report with great interest.

As a web developer and the co-founder of a digital design agency, I could cite many reasons why Apple’s moratorium on rival browser engines is bad for business. But the main reason I am writing to you is as a consumer and a user of Apple’s products.

I own two Apple computing devices: a laptop and a phone. On both devices, I can install apps from Apple’s App Store. But on my laptop I also have the option to download and install an application from elsewhere. I can’t do this on my phone. That would be fine if my needs were met by what’s available in the app store. But clause 2.5.6 of Apple’s app store policy restricts what is available to me as a consumer.

On my laptop I can download and install Mozilla’s Firefox or Google’s Chrome browsers. On my phone, I can install something called Firefox and something called Chrome. But under the hood, they are little more than skinned versions of Safari. I’m only aware of this because I’m au fait with the situation. Most of my fellow consumers have no idea that when they install the app called Firefox or the app called Chrome from the app store on their phone, they are being deceived.

It is this deception that bothers me most.

Kind regards,

Jeremy Keith

To be fair to Apple, this deception requires collusion from Mozilla, Google, Microsoft, and other browser makers. Nobody’s putting a gun to their heads and forcing them to ship skinned versions of Safari that bear only cosmetic resemblance to their actual products.

But of course it would be commercially unwise to forego the app store as a distrubution channel, even if the only features they can ship are superficial ones like bookmark syncing.

Still, imagine what would happen if Mozilla, Google, and Microsoft put their monies where their mouths are. Instead of just complaining about the unjust situation, what if they actually took the financial hit and pulled their faux-browsers from the iOS app store?

If this unjustice is as important as representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla claim it is, then righteous indignation isn’t enough. Principles without sacrifice are easy.

If nothing else, it would throw the real situation into light and clear up the misconception that there is any browser choice on iOS.

I know it’s not going to happen. I also know I’m being a hypocrite by continuing to use Apple products in spite of the blatant misuse of monopoly power on display. But still, I wanted to plant that seed. What if Microsoft, Google, and Mozilla were the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Thursday, January 20th, 2022

Screenshots

I wrote about how I created a page on The Session with instructions for installing the site to your home screen. When I said that I included screenshots on that page, I may have underplayed the effort involved. It was real faff.

I’ve got an iPhone so generating screenshots (and video) from that wasn’t too bad. But I don’t have access to an Android phone. I found myself scouring the web for templates that I could use to mockup a screenshot of the address bar.

That got me thinking…

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a service that generated those screenshots for you? You give it a URL, and it spits out screenshots of the site complete with overlays showing the installation flow on Android and iOS. It could even generate the img markup, complete with differently-scaled images for the srcset attribute.

Download the images. Copy that markup. Paste it into a page on your site. Boom! Now you’ve got somewhere to point your visitors to if you’d like them to install your progressive web app.

There are already some services out there for generating screenshots of mobile phones but they’re missing is the menu overlays for adding to home screen.

The devrels at both Google and Microsoft have been doing a great job of promoting progressive web apps. They’ve built tools to help you with tasks like generating icons or creating your web app manifest. It would be sooooo nifty if those tools also generated instructional screenshots for adding to home screen!

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

Installing progressive web apps

I don’t know about you, but it seems like everyone I follow on Twitter is playing Wordle. Although I don’t play the game myself, I think it’s pretty great.

Not only does Wordle have a very sweet backstory, but it’s also unashamedly on the web. If you want to play, you go to the URL powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle. That’s it. No need to download an app.

That hasn’t stopped some nefarious developers trying to trick people into downloading their clones of Wordle from app stores. App stores, which are meant to be curated and safe, are in fact filled with dodgy knock-offs and scams. Contrary to popular belief, the web is quite literally a safer bet.

Wordle has a web app manifest, which means you can add it to your home screen and it will behave just like a native app (although I don’t believe it has offline support). That’s great, but the process of adding a web app to your home screen on iOS is ludicrously long-winded.

Macworld published an article detailing how to get the real Wordle app on your iPhone or iPad. On the one hand it’s great to see this knowledge being spread. On the other hand it’s dispiriting that it’s even necessary to tell people that they can do this, like it’s a hidden nerdy secret just for power users.

At this point I’ve pretty much given up on Apple ever doing anything about this pathetic situation. So what can I do instead?

Well, taking my cue from that Macworld article, the least I can do is inform people how they can add a progressive web app to their home screen.

That’s what I’ve done on thesession.org. I’ve published a page on how to install The Session to your home screen.

On both Android and iPhone the journey to installing a progressive web app begins with incomprehensible iconography. On Android you must first tap on the unlabeled kebab icon—three vertical dots. On iOS you must first tap on the unlabeled share icon—a square with an arrow coming out of it.

The menu icon on Android. The share icon on iOS.

When it comes to mobile operating systems, consumer choice means you choose which kind of mystery meat to eat.

I’ve included screenshots to help people identify these mysterious portals. For iOS I’ve also included a video to illustrate the quest to find the secret menu item buried beneath the share icon.

I’ve linked to the page with the installation instructions from the site’s “help” page and the home page.

Handy tip: when you’re adding a start_url value to your web app manifest, it’s common to include a query string like this:

start_url: "/?homescreen"

I’m guessing most people to that so they can get analytics on how many people are starting from an icon tap. I don’t do analytics on The Session but I’m still using that query string in my start_url. On the home page of the site, I check for the existence of the query string. If it exists, I don’t show the link to the installation page. So once someone has installed the site to their home screen, they shouldn’t see that message when they launch The Session.

If you’ve got a progressive web app, it might be worth making a page with installation instructions rather than relying on browsers to proactively inform your site’s visitors. You’d still need to figure out the right time and place to point people to that page, but at least the design challenge would be in your hands.

Should you decide to take a leaf out of the Android and iOS playbooks and use mystery meat navigation to link to such a page, there’s an emoji you could potentially use: 📲

It’s still worse than using actual words, but it might be better than some random combination of dots, squares and arrows.

(I’m not really serious about using that emoji, but if you do, be sure to use a sensible aria-label value on the enclosing a element.)

Wednesday, January 12th, 2022

Media queries with display-mode

It’s said that the best way to learn about something is to teach it. I certainly found that to be true when I was writing the web.dev course on responsive design.

I felt fairly confident about some of the topics, but I felt somewhat out of my depth when it came to some of the newer modern additions to browsers. The last few modules in particular were unexplored areas for me, with topics like screen configurations and media features. I learned a lot about those topics by writing about them.

Best of all, I got to put my new-found knowledge to use! Here’s how…

The Session is a progressive web app. If you add it to the home screen of your mobile device, then when you launch the site by tapping on its icon, it behaves just like a native app.

In the web app manifest file for The Session, the display-mode property is set to “standalone.” That means it will launch without any browser chrome: no address bar and no back button. It’s up to me to provide the functionality that the browser usually takes care of.

So I added a back button in the navigation interface. It only appears on small screens.

Do you see the assumption I made?

I figured that the back button was most necessary in the situation where the site had been added to the home screen. That only happens on mobile devices, right?

Nope. If you’re using Chrome or Edge on a desktop device, you will be actively encourged to “install” The Session. If you do that, then just as on mobile, the site will behave like a standalone native app and launch without any browser chrome.

So desktop users who install the progressive web app don’t get any back button (because in my CSS I declare that the back button in the interface should only appear on small screens).

I was alerted to this issue on The Session:

It downloaded for me but there’s a bug, Jeremy - there doesn’t seem to be a way to go back.

Luckily, this happened as I was writing the module on media features. I knew exactly how to solve this problem because now I knew about the existence of the display-mode media feature. It allows you to write media queries that match the possible values of display-mode in a web app manifest:

.goback {
  display: none;
}
@media (display-mode: standalone) {
  .goback {
    display: inline;
  }
}

Now the back button shows up if you “install” The Session, regardless of whether that’s on mobile or desktop.

Previously I made the mistake of inferring whether or not to show the back button based on screen size. But the display-mode media feature allowed me to test the actual condition I cared about: is this user navigating in standalone mode?

If I hadn’t been writing about media features, I don’t think I would’ve been able to solve the problem. It’s a really good feeling when you’ve just learned something new, and then you immediately find exactly the right use case for it!

Sunday, January 9th, 2022

Are apps even that relevant anymore? | Tiny Projects

In most cases, a great mobile website does the trick. You don’t need an app, or the app store. We already have a pretty great app store and you’re browsing it right now.