Will the Browser Wars Invade the Mobile Web?

Nov 28 2011 by Arley McBlain | 28 Comments

Will the Browser Wars Invade the Mobile Web?

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author’s, Arley McBlain.

When it comes to the still emerging Mobile Web realm, I think we should all be outraged about the trouble Windows Phone 7.5 can unleash.

Like anyone, I was curious what Windows Phone 7.5 (codenamed Mango) — a software update to Microsoft’s mobile device operating system — would bring to the Mobile Web front. I’m a web designer, so things like this can affect me professionally.

My real interest in Mango lies in its web browser, IE Mobile 9. How would it hold up? It certainly performs better than its predecessor, but it didn’t take long to start finding rendering issues on some websites, even though these sites were fine on other devices.

A Bit of Background

Until recently, there were arguably only three major players in the mobile device world: BlackBerry, iPhone and Android. These devices still hold a big chunk of smartphone users – 73% of the market share of mobile operating systems in the second quarter of 2011 — Microsoft is trying to keep things relevant with their latest mobile OS.

Source: Wikipedia

A little competition in the burgeoning mobile industry is good and all, but — and maybe you should sit down for this — when Windows Mobile 7 (the predecessor of Mango) shipped in November 2010, the built-in browser was IE Mobile 7 – a standards-disrespecting jerk of a browser that was released over four years previous.

Four years. Think about that. In Internet years that’s like a decade and in mobile technology years that’s like 432 centuries. IE7 is ancient! Sure, it was better than IE6, but it still makes a mockery of web standards, and lacks a lot of great features that all modern browsers have. It feels like a crime to add IE7-specific style sheets to a modern mobile site or app. But that’s the reality.

Mango is now released with IE9 adapted to their mobile OS (called IE Mobile 9). Though this is by all measures a modern browser, it’s still rendering pages differently and breaking a beautiful Web.

Why It Matters

It seems as though the Mobile space is beginning to repeat what we have seen from the ongoing desktop browser wars.

When IE6 was king, it had over 75% of market share. With IE5.5 combined, it was 95%.

What an amazing time it was to make websites: You could create and test a website with one web browser without feeling like your web development responsibilities were being shirked. You could be confident that 95% of Internet users would see the same thing.

That bubble burst when people began adopting other browsers, and eventually we got to where we are today.

Personally, I try to test a website project on at least 5 specific desktop browsers. It’s a lot more work, particularly if the client needs to support older browsers.

The WebKit Bubble

In Mobile, we are still sort of in that happy bubble! WebKit, a popular open source browser engine, is great. It’s the backbone of the BlackBerry browser (OS6+), Apple Safari (for the iPhone) and the built-in web browser in Android mobile devices.

Mobile sites made for these devices will generally look and act the same. (Though you should still test in various platforms and devices.)

Will the Bubble Burst?

Now there’s Microsoft. Please understand that I’m not a hater. I respect the company and their contributions to the way we use technology today. They’ve had an enormous and very positive impact in computing, gaming and Web technologies.

Their browser’s unique way of rendering websites, on the other hand, creates problems. For the first time since 2005, we almost had a standard base to build websites on — but I fear that Microsoft carries enough weight and users to shift the balance towards their advantage, and the work going into producing websites will again multiply.

Universal Standards for Mobile Browsers

Windows Phone hasn’t taken over yet, even though the company that developed it carries a lot of weight in the tech world.

It’s up to us to pester friends, families and clients into installing some WebKit solution onto their Windows mobile devices. For example, let them know about Zetakey, a WebKit-based browser that can work on Windows mobile devices.

Or, if you’re feeling very bitter, you can start adding this to your mobile web designs:

<!--[if IEMobile]><style>*{display:none;}</style><![endif]-->

Is that too extreme?

Am I saying WebKit should be the sole browser engine that the Mobile Web is built on? No. I only raise this point since, in the Mobile space, we are so close to one universal browser engine right now.

I personally would be fine with literally any universal standard. I would honestly rather that IE6 once again be the 95% global standard than to have to keep adapting to the ever-increasing requirements that are being added to the average project. As modern web designers, these are just some of the things we are faced with:

  • Screens are simultaneously getting bigger and smaller.
  • We have to take into account standard mouse and keyboard users, touchscreens and accessibility considerations.
  • We are to be context-sensitive, social, and make use of emerging web technologies like geolocation and responsive web design.

The demands of modern mobile websites and mobile web apps are serious. Wrangling stubborn browsers on top of all of that is ridiculous.

Web browsers have been around for nearly twenty years — the fact that two browsers can render the same code radically different is insane.

We need to unite and demand a better browser standard.

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About the Author

Arley McBlain is a web designer, web developer, in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. If you’d like to keep in touch with the author, check out his personal site, ArleyM, and follow him on Twitter as @ArleyM.

28 Comments

Okyere Adu-Gyamfi

November 28th, 2011

Why is the elephant in the room always shitfing its weight all over?

Kean

November 28th, 2011

Though I know screenshoting windows phones is a huge pain it would have been nice to see examples of the issues you’ve had that really help justify and validate your opinion.

Without knowing the scale of the issues it could be dismissed that any potential issues can be solved with small adjustments using conditional comments. This isn’t an excuse however as we should not have to resort to such methods with a browser we consider modern.

Sunny Singh

November 28th, 2011

Even though WebKit is the default rendering engine on many mobile devices, we already have to account for many others. There are mobile versions of Firefox and Opera, which both use different engines. Then, as you mentioned, there’s IE on Windows Phone 7. Although Firefox and Opera render sites almost the same as WebKit, the days of coding just for WebKit are gone.

What to do for IE is an interesting question. Do we really have to support mobile IE7? And even if we don’t, IE9 still poses a problem. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that users are using Windows Phone 7, and it’d be unfair to block our sites to them.

I guess the best thing to do is use frameworks such as jQuery Mobile, which aim to reach as many platforms as possible.

Matt Sheppard

November 28th, 2011

I totally agree with this article, I would 100% prefer someone to have a major market share, even if it isn’t great; just so you know your client isn’t going to say “But it looks terrible” and then you have to find out what browser they have found a bug in… Unfortunately the sad fact remains that we will probably never see a universal standard :(

Jason

November 28th, 2011

Nice article. I totally agree. I love Microsoft products in general, and I’ve been a web developer for 14 years, but having worked through the IE6 days you spoke of, I soon after totally embraced web standards and no longer have any patience for the extra work needed to make site (mobile or otherwise) look exactly the same in all browsers. If rounded corners dont work in IE, so be it! One browser has the nice rounded corner, but in IE they’ll be square.

Specific to mobile, I’ve been building my mobile web app using JQuery Mobile. Now that 1.0 has just been released I’m excited about the future of the framework. I’ll be honest I have not even tried my app on a WinMo phone yet (it’s still in beta). But it works great on Android and iPhone so far, not bad on Blackberry either. One of the reasons I decided to go in the JQM direction was that all the heavy lifting of the cross browser testing and rendering issues are already taken care of in the framework, so I can concentrate on functionality and making a great user experience, not on rendering bugs.

Ed

November 28th, 2011

Instead of trying to target and fix their shortfalls, we should put it on Microsoft to put out a better product. When a user purchases a Windows mobile device and sees that many many sites are very different than they are used to, they will see it is an issue with the device and not web sites, and (hopefully) demand Microsoft put out an update to fix this shortfall. This is different than IE6 because most IE6 users are corporations that cannot upgrade or users that don’t know any better. When it comes to a mobile device, users tend to be much more tech savvy and will demand better quality.

Also, how many of the “broken” sites when viewed by a Windows mobile device were using -webkit rules in their CSS (which a mobile IE would ignore)?

Ryan

November 28th, 2011

I completely agree. Great write-up! I think my blood pressure rose as I read this. I wasn’t aware that IE mobile was essentially another IE desktop problem. What a sham.

Andrew Margolin

November 28th, 2011

Thanks for the article Arley, It is very frustrating as a web designer to keep account of and test for all mobile browsers. What is the best way to test for multiple mobile browsers without owning the phone? :)

Sean

November 28th, 2011

@Sunny Singh – “the days of coding just for WebKit are gone” – it’s even more true if we take into account the local (Europe, Asia, etc) preferences and specifics (see also http://www.htmlcut.com/blog/cross-browser-psd-to-html-conversion.html ).

ArleyM

November 28th, 2011

I got into some interesting discussions offline about this, and was impressed that Opera actually has a considerable browser share across the globe (#1 in many countries). While I haven’t tested with mobile versions of Opera or Firefox extensively they’ve been solid so far as I can tell.

As is the case with Editorial posts, my views can come off extreme. While a single browser platform might actually be a terrible thing in many respects, what I really really want is browsers to just render things the same way!

@Kean – the issue I was having was images wrapping when they shouldn’t, and mobile IE7 wasn’t respecting some CSS shorthand. Not really big things I know, but I’m not looking forward to spending the rest of my life bootstrapping old Internet Explorers!

Derek Johnson

November 28th, 2011

I feel this article is missing the point.

The problem with the browser wars wasn’t a diverse browser landscape – there were only two serious players after all – it was the amount of proprietary crap being added by Netscape and Microsoft that forced developers to fork code and in some cases make a direct choice. Anyone remember Netscape’s <layer> tag that worked like <div>? JavaScript development was by all accounts a nightmare that often involved total duplication.

We are not faced with this problem now because all the experimental/proprietary stuff is prefixed, browser vendors by and large work to specs, and the web is a happier place for it.

A second point is that the result of the browser wars was a Microsoft victory and subsequent stagnant monopoly, something the author of this article seems to want to see again for Webkit on mobile.

I hear the cries of “Webkit is different, they will never stop innovating”, but I don’t believe for a second they would be the innovative driving force they are now in the absence of competition on mobile. Humans are well practised in forgetting the lessons of history, and if we can do so in matters of war and economics we sure as hell can when it comes to browsers and rendering engines.

Thirdly, Webkit in Safari on the iPhone is a different beast to Android. Back in September Android browsing briefly overtook iPhone browsing, which inevitably led to schadenfreude among some Android fans/iPhone haters. This led Alex Gibson to remark on twitter that being pleased about Android passing iOS in the mobile browser stats is like celebrating IE6 suddenly gaining market share.

So if Webkit does gain a monopoly on mobile we could be faced with developing for the mobile equivalents of IE6 and the latest Chrome hawtness. Careful what you wish for.

I welcome competition between mobile browsers and am delighted Microsoft is bringing a browser to the game that will intensify the competition. As long as we build our content first and apply progressive enhancement our work will not multiply. Maybe it will slightly increase, maybe it won’t. To say it will multiply is baseless hyperbole.

Finally I would like to point out that Opera is the world’s most popular mobile browser, and has been since Noah was pairing off animals. Opera’s ommission from the chart at the top of this article is a serious blow to its credibility.

Jacob Gube

November 28th, 2011

@Derek Johnson:

RE:

Opera’s ommission from the chart at the top of this article is a serious blow to its credibility.

The pie chart is mobile operating systems, not browsers. The discussion up there is of devices and operating systems, not browsers.

Techie

November 28th, 2011

But the article title says about browser wars :)

Danny Baggs

November 29th, 2011

Hear hear, I too thought this particular challenge would have played out in the desktop space and therefore not be a mobile issue. Naturally, I too was wrong.

You forgot to add on top of all this, there is the device detection challenge and how various device/browser combos act differently (Opera uses a different User Agent header and I’ve had difficulty getting some mobile browsers to obey the “target-densitydpi=device-dpi” meta viewport setting).

Anyhow, thanks for exposing this stuff through your post.

Regards,

Dan

swill

November 29th, 2011

Yes, I’m sure it will. I don’t mind all the browsers of web go into mobile market. All the browsers no matter it is a big ones like chrome, firefox or the small ones like Avant browser, slim browser.

Frederik

November 29th, 2011

It’s actually pretty funny, you don’t see tv makers or video game developers make special exception for TVs and monitors that don’t stick to display standards.
But web developers/designers do bent over backwards to make sure everybody is happy, even if your browser is crap. Shoulden’t that actually be something to be proud of? Rather then a cause for conflict and frustration?

Rachael

November 29th, 2011

An interesting read! Although you may not have to design a site specifically optimised for mobile devices – it’s just nice to know that the beautiful site you’ve made isn’t going to look completely horrible on a web browser.

As an industry I think we have got used to designing around the glitches on desktops, but it’s becoming more and more important to work around the browsers for mobiles.

And as for wanting universal standards, that’s not something that applies solely to mobile devices!

Derek Johnson

November 29th, 2011

My mistake. Thanks for highlighting it Jacob.

I was quite pleased with my Noah quip, but alas it was made under ignorance.

Paul

November 29th, 2011

It’s nice to hear a good passionate rant, I applaud you sir.
Most industries have a governing standard in the sense of the W3C but I wonder if there should be a more consumer focused one, more of a browser product standard based on release date and market value.
If MS can push a sub par implementation to a unknowing user group (like the Outlook “Word” based rendering kafuffle) then they need to be more responsible to those whom have a working dependency on such products.

I love many MS products and they are in a tough position in terms of legacy browser and stubborn or unknowing users but they need to stop releasing new issues like this.

Jitendra Shah

November 29th, 2011

I can see it coming because this year more smartphones were sold than laptops. The ratio is only going to increase.

Michael Hall

November 29th, 2011

nice article, can you guys recommend a site that will show how our websites look in the various mobile phones?

smartcenter

November 29th, 2011

Internet Explorer 9 can speed up the browser, but breaks some layout, webmasters have to test now for IE Mobile 9 too

Humayun

November 29th, 2011

There is no doubt about that this is a informative article.We have come to know about the mobile phone operating system through reading this. Android operating system for phone is most popular among the all operating system for phone. Another important thing is that the chart, in which we can understand the the difference of popularity.

mrtedweb

November 29th, 2011

Nice article. Thanks for pointing out the obvious. Thank goodness we’re able to leverage great web tools like Flash… oh wait… @#$%&*!

MobilyYours

December 1st, 2011

I normally don’t comment on articles but, this one shows a very naïve view of the mobile browser and OS world.

Bashing Microsoft’s phone and IE9 Mobile or using them as the lone problem is short-sighted. There are many mobile browsers out there and they all have the possibility of displaying sites differently/badly.

Please realize that it’s not just the mobile device’s operating system and browser but also the device’s model and the network of the device that determines how a site displays on the mobile device. Each mobile software vendor and carrier tweaks things (software, rendering engines, etc.) which will impact a site’s display.

Think of how many mobile phone/device options there are across the US mobile carriers alone (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.). Each of those devices can render a site differently.

I’ve personally seen the same “model” of phone on 2 different networks have display discrepancies between them – even though they’re the “same” phone. This is why, when testing mobile sites, you need to test on actual phones. Don’t use emulators. A site will work in an emulator but break on the actual phone.

The article states:
“Until recently, there were arguably only three major players in the mobile device world: BlackBerry, iPhone and Android.”

Umm… those are the 3 *recent* mobile OS’s/players. Palm, Motorola, Nokia, and Ericsson used to be the big players along with RIM (BlackBerry) in mobile. Then Apple came out with the iPhone and Google came out with Android and things shifted. Just think, a year ago, the iPhone was the most popular mobile OS, now it’s Android. Who knows what will happen in the next year or two?

I ask you this: how can one be on a mobile soapbox if one is surprised that Opera Mini has a considerable share world-wide? I’m sorry but, as another commentator has also pointed out, Opera Mini has been the most popular mobile web browser world-wide *for years*.

Edwin

December 1st, 2011

I think a large issue of mobile browser incompatibilities stems from the stunning variation in screen size and hardware of all the smartphones that are out there today. This needs to be addressed before a standard can be established.

EuroSignUp

December 3rd, 2011

There is a real war between explorer providers.Nowadays it takes ages to fix compatibility issues and I wonder how the mobile market would look like.

Mobile IE, I know, does not take much of CPU memory but compatibilty is still a big issue.

Mike

December 4th, 2011

Right now mobile browsers are almost useless, Safari for iOS is like IE6 back in days, everyone uses it but it has way more bugs than features.
I am really looking forward to what Google Chrome will get done in mobile market as their desktop browser is outstanding

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