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Browser war reignited on mobile

Hopes for WebKit to take over and 'unify' the mobile web

Today on Six Revisions, web designer Arley McBlain worries that we might be heading for another browser war, this time on mobile. His main concern appears to be Microsoft chucking a spanner in the works through IE for its mobile OS, in a market currently dominated by WebKit. This, he thinks, could trigger a repeat of what we long saw on the desktop, with developers forced to deal with the quirks of each browser. "Web browsers have been around for nearly twenty years—the fact that two browsers can render the same code radically different is insane," he remarks.

When we spoke to McBlain, he told us that having worked on a number of mobile sites, initially focusing on BlackBerry, iOS and Android, he had high hopes for Windows Phone. "The [newer] desktop IE isn't bad, and I'd hoped the Windows platform would start rendering sites more or less the same as WebKit phones." Instead, many bugs from the previous version of IE for mobile were retained. "I got the same feeling as when realising back in 2006 that IE7 and IE6 weren't rendering sites the same—and that I'd have to start testing and developing multiple versions of pages."

Although WebKit browsers aren't identical across platforms, McBlain believes their quirks are more easily solvable, and also that the platforms they're used on tend to adapt more quickly than Microsoft's. And he argued third-party browsers (such as Firefox and Opera) can hinder rather than help: "They're not baked into the OS, and so users like my mother will never hear of them. The best we can hope for is for the stock browser to be rock-solid with respects to rendering sites to some standard."

The loser is the web

UX designer and developer Aral Balkan also spoke to us about the possibility of a browser war in this rapidly growing space. "I hope we're not heading for a browser war on mobile because the true loser in that war would be the web itself. Today, the web is facing its toughest challenge for survival ever as native platforms are catching up to it in key areas where it has traditionally had an advantage: deployment and distribution, seamless updates, and universal access. And, beyond that, it's also facing competition from cross-platform solutions that can be deployed natively across various devices," he said. "The last thing the web needs is in-fighting between browser manufacturers that fragments the experience for end users, alienates developers, and places it at a further disadvantage to other native and cross-platform alternatives."

On the suggestion that a single engine could perhaps solve the issue, Balkan claimed the web has "already benefited from having – for all intents and purposes – a single engine in the form of WebKit-based browsers". And he largely dismissed the differences in the various implementations: "You only need to compare the codebase of a JavaScript library like jQuery (31KB, minified/zipped) with that of a mobile framework like Thomas Fuch's zepto.js (7.4K, minified/zipped) to see the benefit of lower fragmentation in the mobile web. Zepto is four times smaller than jQuery, thanks, in large part, to not having to support as many browser inconsistencies."

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