We Need More Mobile First Browsers. Google Needs to Step Up.

Written by Jason Grigsby on

Since the app store was released, people have been suspicious of Apple’s commitment to the open, mobile web. Why would Apple push the mobile web forward when web technology may compete with its native apps platform?

I’m not usually an Apple defender, but if you want to beat up on a company for their laggard mobile browser, look in Mountain View, not Cupertino.

Apple continues to add key functionality to Mobile Safari. The rumors are that iOS 5 will include:

  • position:fixed
  • overflow:scroll
  • date input fields
  • Nitro javascript engine in home screen apps
  • Web workers
  • Native scrolling behavior

Who knows if these will actually ship in the final version of iOS 5, but their inclusion wouldn’t be a surprise. Ever since the initial release of the iPhone, each new version of the operating system has included new browser features. Often these features, like geolocation, show up in Mobile Safari before they show up on the desktop.

This is what I call a mobile first browser. Borrowing from Luke Wroblewski’s mobile first thinking, browser makers need to develop their mobile browsers first.

We Need More Mobile First Browsers

Of the browser makers that have both mobile and desktop versions, which ones have shipped new features on mobile first?

We know Apple has. I suspect Opera has as well. The rest seem to be developing for desktop first.

Recently, Dave Winer argued that Mozilla is no longer creating new features for Firefox that people care about.

What I found most interesting about Dave’s article is that mobile specific features are not mentioned in either his post nor in the comments. The Mozilla folks who defend their browser and its features talk exclusively about the desktop version.

Microsoft’s mobile browser also lags its desktop version. The mango update will bring Internet Explorer 9 to Windows Phone 7 later this year.

Mango will be a great improvement over Internet Explorer 7 which is currently being used, but while the Windows Phone team works on integrating IE9, Microsoft has already released two preview builds of Internet Explorer 10.

Google Needs to Step Up

If there was one company that we would expect to lead the charge for the open, mobile web, it would be Google. At Mobilize 2009, I watched Andy Rubin, SVP of Mobile, say that Google saw HTML5 eventually supplanting most native apps.

Given Google’s emphasis on web technology, a leading edge mobile browser seems like a natural fit. The reality is much different. The Android browser lags behind the iPhone in many ways.

At Google I/O 2010, Vic Gundotra demonstrated browser access to the camera, accelerometer, and the microphone. When Read/Write Web asked me about the demonstration, I responded, “Hell yeah, it’s about time”.

Unfortunately, none of these features shipped with Android’s Gingerbread release. Apple shipped browser access to the accelerometer before Google did. It is over a year later, and we have no idea when we will see them.

Shi Chuan recently wrote a provocative post entitled An Inconvenient Truth – Android and the Open Mobile Web. He may have got some of the details wrong, but the overall sentiment is spot on.

The contrast at Google I/O this year between a day dedicated to Android and a day dedicated to Chrome OS made the problems crystal clear.

For some time I’ve been hearing rumors of battles between the Chrome and Android teams. Seeing the two operating systems on stage made it clear that they are competing visions of the future. Should tablets use Chrome OS or Android?

It seems that the things that people accuse Apple of—slowing the pace of the browser in order to give their app platform an advantage—are actually happening at Google. Competition is generally a good thing, but when the competition is between the Android and Chrome teams, it is the users of the Android browser who lose.

Google needs to step up. Chrome is arguably the best desktop browser. There is no excuse for Android’s browser not leading as well.

Jason Grigsby

Jason Grigsby is one of the co-founders of Cloud Four, Mobile Portland and Responsive Field Day. He is the author of Progressive Web Apps from A Book Apart. Follow him at @grigs.

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What I think you missed in your article is that while Apple introduces functions they are not standard! Which means that a web developer should write code separate for Safari and Android. Google does it better as firstly going trough standardization first.

@PeterStJ Can you provide some examples? Here is what I see:

position:fixed — W3C CSS 2
overflow:scroll — W3C CSS 2
date input fields — WHATWG/W3C HTML 5
Nitro javascript engine in home screen apps — ECMAScript running fast
Web workers — W3C Web Workers Spec
Native scrolling behavior — Apple specific
Geolocation — W3C GeoLocation
Accelerometer — W3C Device Orientation Spec
Gyroscope — W3C Device Orientation Spec

I don’t see evidence that supports your claim. Nor do I think Google is beholden to the standards bodies. Look at Schema.org as an example of Google ditching standards as necessary.

And even if this wasn’t true, I wouldn’t care. Push the mobile browser forward. Prefix as needed to keep things safe. Work with the standards bodies to codify what works best. This is the way browsers development has worked for years.

Finally, standards haven’t prevented Google from having the best desktop browser. I find it hard to believe they are getting in the way of Google having the best mobile browser.

i think the characterization of Firefox is a little off.

Firefox has people working full time on mobile. Those people are committing features and fixes in to the main platform along with desktop features and fixes. By default, anything added for Desktop goes in for mobile. This means that before Firefox 4 was full released the mobile version released those features first.

For Chrome and Safari there is a lot more built on top of WebKit that varies between Chome/Safari and Desktop/Mobile than there is for Firefox Desktop vs Mobile.

It sounds to me that the microsoft strategy is to use Sharepoint and IE to keep people strapped into Windows Desktop, and use moving apps to IE9 to kill all the people who aren’t upgrading from XP.

Since those are products people actually buy you can see why they are getting the attention today. I don’t think I’ve seen a windows 7 phone in the wild yet.

To me, one of the most incredible things about this is that Android users do not get the protection of the HttpOnly cookie flag! This flag goes a LONG way toward preventing XSS (cross-site scripting) attacks, and all fully-patched desktop browsers **from IE6 on** support HttpOnly. The iPhone supports HttpOnly. But Android? Pffft!

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts now that we have Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich coming in a few short weeks. I wish I could say that with absolute certainty, but as you know, in the world of Android updates there’s no guarantees. Based on what I saw in the Galaxy Nexus presentation the overhaul to Android is pretty impressive. I’d still say it has a ways to go to matching the polish and design of iOS 5, but it certainly addresses some of the concerns you listed in your article above.

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