Dec 29

Attack of the Mobile Browsers

Mobile, Tech, Web Browsing 3 Comments »

It has been exciting to see the increase in mobile browsers available for various platforms. Some platforms have allowed this freedom (e.g. a “full” Firefox experience on Android). Others like iOS restrict applications to the realm of WebKit and the APIs available:

“2.17 Apps that browse the web must use the iOS WebKit framework and WebKit Javascript”

Even with that handicap, we have seen some very interesting experiments, each with their own take.

I have been playing with some of the new iPhone browser apps recently. What jumps out at me?


My favorite is probably the 360 Browser from Saloni Srivastava. It packs a lot of fun features into a small device sized package, even if the UI feels a little foreign sometimes:

  • The pie menu approach brought a smile (we experimented with a pie menu in Bespin). There are two modes: drag and tap. With the default drag mode you end up holding a digit down on the screen and moving around. In practice I found this approach wanting because I would either hide the menu that I was aiming for, or I would move off and the menu would disappear. I prefer the tap approach, but actually wish for a solution that mixed the two… specifically, in tap mode I want to be able to hold down on a menu item and have a tooltip tell me what I am dealing with…. important as you learn the system.
  • Firefox Sync support is fantastic. I wish that I could tie in syncing from other browsers too and unify things.
  • In the top left of the toolbar you can quickly tap to make the current tab private…… something that many users will enjoy ;)
  • Tab support in general is good, and you can quickly show and hide them
  • Which leads into full screen support
  • The plugin system allows you to bring in a lot more to the experience. It feels a bit clunky, going into the plugins area and tapping on the item even though it has an [x] on it etc, but it great to be able to extend your browsing.


Sleipnir Mobile innovates nicely with tabs and somewhat with tagging and bookmarking. Being able to setup various “workspaces” for your tabs is very useful. I find myself wanting to keep a copy of sites like TechMeme, Hacker News, and others, and being able to put them in one tab group is fantastic.


Skyfire has both an iPhone and iPad version of their browser. Most talk about their support for Flash video, but they also have other interesting features such as their “quick views” which give you a taste of Twitter or Facebook without having to jump away from your current browsing stream. I am not the kind of chap who is looking for “related” exploration, but others probably are. It is also interesting to see how browsers get around limitations of the app-centric model. For example, Skyfire is aware of the clipboard and sucks in URLs, since you can’t send a URL to open that browser, or have a system-wide setting for “default browser”. We have similar issues with bookmarks. I want one central store that they can all use (others would like separation).

In general, features such as private browsing, better tab management, and also caching itself can be huge. It drives me bonkers to hit the back button and have to wait for a page to be reloaded when I just came from there. I would happily give up a lot more hard drive space on my device to the browser. The feel of the browser is important too. If the scrolling is off, or the gestures? Ugh. I had that experience with Opera when it first came out. By default pages were zoomed so far out that it was unreadable and the pinch/zoom felt wrong.

I really hope that the exploration that is happening in the mobile browser space (and the money that some folks are making off of it!) keeps going, and that Apple opens up their terms to allow for a full Firefox experience and others.

What would you like to see on a mobile browser?

Dec 15

Chrome Frame for iPhone; Taking your HTML5 renderer with you

Mobile, Open Source, Open Web, Tech, Web Browsing 2 Comments »

I love the Web, but a couple of things have gotten me thinking.

#1: Netflix on PlayStation 3 via HTML5

I got to meet some of the awesome engineers behind the HTML5-fication of Netflix experiences, specifically folks in the TV group. They showed us various UI experiments and it was beautiful to see. The UI is slick and modern, and every effect is using CSS transition goodness, nicely hardware accelerated thanks to the PS3’s GPU.

At first it may seem a bit crazy that the team took Qt/WebKit with them as the rendering platform, but when you think about the huge number of devices that Netflix needs to support, it makes “wanting an iPhone and Android app” seem like laughable fragmentation.

#2: Trusting the implementations to catch up?

We have amazing browsers in modern devices. But as we push the Web forward, we are still facing buggy implementations and varying support. Although WebKit lives within Mobile Safari, that doesn’t mean that Mobile Safari has open sourced everything to WebKit. The touch support isn’t there. We can’t all use the same scrolling effects and the like. That has to be built up by everyone.

Ideally, with position:fixed (now in Android), you could use that and even flexbox to use the core scrolling of the browser itself so you don’t have to resort in the mimicry that frameworks have had to do until now.

Even the magical escape chute to the GPU via CSS3D isn’t a silver bullet.

matthew farag

Matthew Farag has a lovely portfolio site that uses the power of this modern goodness (using Scripty2 for auto hardware acceleration!). Works great on a desktop WebKit, but how about the iPad? It does pretty well, but you start to see some of the buggy issues where the GPU seems to run out of memory and you get weird artifacts.

So, when you put these two together, you realize that it could be nice to carry a great consistent Web runtime with you to allow you to get great experiences, especially while we are transitioning and getting everything flushed out. It would also enable us not to be beholden to the likes of Android and Apple to make sure that their Web runtimes are fantastic.

I may want Chrome Frame for devices more than I care about it on the desktop as it turns out. Hmm. Alex? ;)

Dec 14

If Chrome OS perishes or even merges, it will be a sad day for the Web

Google, Mozila, Open Source, Open Web 4 Comments »

People have often commented on how strange it is that Google has two OSes in Android and ChromeOS. Some talk about how it is doing the “Microsoft thing” by setting up an internal competition, and Google is big enough to do that kind of thing.

There were many who saw that “the Web will eventually win”, but as Android’s numbers get larger and larger, others are pondering things. Is the timing off? Has Android gotten too large to let itself lose to Chrome OS? Is the app ecosystem for Chrome OS not up to snuff with Android (let alone iOS)?

If Google pulled the plug on Chrome OS it would feel like a bad day for the Web. Chrome OS needs push the entire Web forward. Chrome is adding features to WebKit and Chromium at a very healthy rate, and the Chrome OS pieces make sure that features that flush out the Web to rival native environments come along. Without the Chrome OS project being part of the whole Chrome ecosystem, that may not quite be the case.

There are some projects that Google should go long on, and some that should be experiments. You could argue that Wave was an experiment that didn’t warrant continued evolution, but Chrome OS should. It moves the Web forward.

The Web has a lot of huge benefits, but it is still hard at it going up against iOS, Android, and others. We need a lot of investment to give the Web the SDK that developers are striving for, so they can deliver compelling experiences. We aren’t there yet.

With Google and Chrome OS, HP and webOS, and even a lot of other players (e.g. RIM and its Web support, Nokia and its, etc etc) we are seeing a healthy double-take on taking the Web forward and making the next big platform truly multi-vendor.

“Merging” with Android is interesting. Android’s web stack has gotten better recently, but it is very much lacking, and you could argue that getting the Chrome/WebKit talent and putting it on the Android stack could do a lot for the Web, and maybe bring the Web up to be a true Android platform. That could be a good thing, but would it ever truly be a first class citizen compared to the “Java but not really Java” stack?

I truly hope that Google double downs on Chrome and Chrome OS, and gives it time to have the Web come along for the next ride as more than the ghetto that some would like to see it become.

If not, time for Mozilla to create a Web OS :)

Dec 02

Native apps are always better than Web apps; Psst, the new way has an escape chute

HTML, JavaScript, Mobile, Open Web, Tech, UI / UX, iPhone 3 Comments »

When we talk about the mobile Web being a good candidate to be a unifying platform for mobile and beyond, we often get nay-sayers telling us that there is no chance of this happening.

Their claims often chanted include:

  • Cross platform never works (case in point: Swing)
  • You can’t create a great experience without going native (and Apple raised the bar on the experience!)

There is some validity to some of this, but I also wanted to discuss the other side too.

Cross Platform Did Work

Swing gets bashed because a) it didn’t take off, and b) people always saw Swing apps as ugly and great examples of the uncanny valley. That team worked tirelessly for many years to try to get the look and feels to be as exacting to their hosts as possible. A pixel off here and there…. and it felt wrong.

It turns out that this probably wasn’t the right approach, and either a) Use SWT to use the real OS components or b) create a great looking l&f that is different to any one host, but natural and fantastic to use. Ben, Jasper Potts, and others fought for such a look and feel in Nimbus but a lot of time had gone by.

We have all seen many platforms on top of hosts that don’t feel right and don’t look good. That doesn’t mean that cross platform can’t work. Flash is an example that is very much cross platform and that community very much went the “every app will have its own UI”…. probably TOO far in the other direction ;)

In fact, the Web itself is a fantastic cross platform success. We have argued that if it wasn’t for the massive Web revolution, would non-Microsoft vendors (read: Mac OS X) be in the situation there are now? Or would they have followed in the wake of Atari, Amiga and BeOS? When the Web happened, suddenly the interesting actions that people wanted to do on a computer were dominated by the global scale of the Web (Google, Amazon, Yahoo!, eBay, etc). The Microsoft Office lock-in was gone (aside: it also DID help a lot that Microsoft gave Apple money, got Office over there, and solutions like VMWare enabled those few Windows apps that you still wanted to come with you).

The Web was a great cross platform success, even though its rich capabilities in the areas of graphics were laughable…. as I mentioned in an earlier post:

Apple - old and new

When you look back at many of the earlier designs of the top website brands, they are comical by todays standards. However, at this same time, technology such as WPF was being touted on the desktop. Why would people visit Web sites when they could experience amazing native Windows and Macintosh experiences?

So, I don’t think you can discount the Web on the merits of “cross platform can’t win” as it already did win once, and at a time when the capability gap was much wider than we now have with HTML5.

Compare this native app to their Web site!


I teased about the Delta mobile Web application before. If you compare their iPhone application to what you get if you go through a mobile browser, the difference is huge.

But, is the reason they are so different due to capability? I think not. I think the reason is much more about structure, legacy, politics, and history reasons.

I remember seeing an early viewing of an Adobe AIR eBay client. The thing was so rich, so much better than the awful eBay site in almost every way. It made you want to cry looking at the website afterwards. Why or why would eBay have this fantastic client and not spend time on the website where all their customers were! It wasn’t that they were baffoons, it was because they had no legacy in this new world!

The designers had free rein with a blank sheet of paper. They had core concepts and some design language, but total creative freedom. Compare that to the website. If they changed the color one hex value users would go nuts! Every time Facebook changes their site there is a massive campaign to change it back for the first 2 weeks.

They also didn’t have to run the gauntlet of the massive codebase that had been built over years to make any of these changes. And the QA. Ugh.

In fact, an entirely new team could be formed to do this work.

This is exactly what I am seeing in mobile. In many companies, if there is a mobile group, they are just that…. a very separate group. In a non-mobile-thinking company they are like the old “Mac” group in a Windows heavy shop that hangs in the corner and is very different.

Other companies are still getting into the world of mobile and realizing that usage patterns are going in that direction. They are bringing in consultants to help out. They are forming new crack teams to take on the challenge. They are realizing that they need to re-think the entire experience, and hopefully realizing that they need to create software as-a-whole in a very different manner.

The bar on the quality of experiences on some of the mobile platforms is very high indeed (and very low on others!) which has the (great) effect of pushing the bar forward.

Will this leave the Web versions behind? Maybe in the short term. Kinda like how the old Twitter website was simple compared to Tweetie and other clients, but #newtwitter is much richer and borrows some of the concepts where they make sense.

I am definitely seeing people swing back to their web experiences. As multiple platforms foster in touch and cross device, they are starting to feel the increasing tax of building totally different applications across the fragmentation, and then trying to keep them in sync once the 1.0 is complete. Outsourcing the 1.0 is one thing, but the syncing part is hard.

Back to Delta. You will notice that the screenshots on the web side get increasingly poor as you go deeper into the experience. Contrast that with the iPhone version above that is always at a high quality. It is time for them to go back to the web side and sync up.

In fact, just before a recent talk, we coded up some of the simple transitions and feel just so show how easy it is to get some of this stuff working via the mobile Web. You can see the simple example here.

In our Palm Developer Day keynote we shared some of the high level pieces on how to put this all together, the major piece being that you have to really re-think the way that you architect your applications (think: Gmail not server generated HTML, Backbone.js, and more).

Here are some of the slides:





aside: Dave Balmer goes into some depth in his Rockstar apps with HTML5 talks.

Of course, it isn’t all hunky dory. There are still edge cases on getting things performing just right using the Web on the various devices. You have to think “cross platform” again. It may have been nice to ignore that and hack on a native application for awhile. But, would you rather be porting between proprietary SDKs and languages all day long? Or re-use as much of your code as possible.

And, if for some valid reason you really DO need a bit of native for something, you can break out of jail and do just that. The escape chute is waiting for you.

We have a long way to go on giving developers better access to native capabilities and tools to make building the next generation of apps more of a breeze, but it is doable right now (another aside: webOS kinda proves that right now as the native apps ARE Web apps!)

I will finish with the interesting take from Venture Beat the other day on how
the iPhone app is the Flash homepage of 2010. They say:

In the late 1990s, it was common for companies to spend $50,000 to $150,000 for a Flash homepage that looked like a beautiful brochure. However, they soon learned that Flash was cumbersome, slow to load, expensive to build, and hard to update, and moved on to HTML. Now only specialized, high-end sites are Flash only.
The exact same thing has replayed itself on the iPhone. Companies have paid $50,000, $100,000, and more for an iPhone app. Now they have to keep the iPhone app in sync with their regular web site, and have to add additional native apps, each at a high price point, due to the hypergrowth of Android and newly viable platforms like Windows Phone 7