Recently Mike Rowehl, a mobile developer with relatively little knowledge of the web world, confessed to being baffled by the attitude of web developers interested in mobile.
He feels there’s a disconnect between what web developers do, what they’re supposed to be doing, and the tools mobile vendors make available to them.
Mike is completely right. There is a whole series of disconnects right now in mobile web development, and most of them are the web developers’ fault. Unfortunately the web world is hard to understand for an interested outsider.
That’s why I’m going to reply to Mike’s article in detail. My reply grew so large that I split it into three parts. The first two parts will treat the failings of web developers; the third one will discuss what the mobile world is doing wrong.
This first part defines the overall problem.
(Now if someone on the other side of the fence would explain the mobile world to web developers I’d be grateful. I’m especially interested in mobilists’ perception of the web.)
Generally I don’t hear too much from the web developers about being able to hit wide swaths of devices with the same set of markup and styles. [...]
I hear things like “it works on the iPhone, that’s what I have anyway, I don’t care about Android” more often than I’ve heard people discuss how to make things work consistently on both platforms.
Whenever the discussion starts to revolve around hitting multiple handsets, it’s always driven by people already in mobile.
In other words: why aren’t mobile web developers doing their job? The unique selling point of the web is that it runs on all devices; and not just on one platform. But it seems mobile web developers aren’t much interested in reaching out beyond one or two specific platforms.
This is a bug, and not a feature. Web developers should reach out to as many platforms as humanly possible, and not confine themslves to the best one.
The easiest solution is to tell them so in no uncertain terms. The good ones will avoid your eyes nervously because they know you’re right. The bad ones won’t — and that gives you a good method of separating the chaff from the wheat.
Now why are web developers interested in mobile so reluctant to venture out beyond their iPhone comfort zone?
On Mobile Web Brian Fling made an important point:
Maybe smaller companies get swayed by marketing buzz [about the iPhone], because they have no data to the contrary. But the companies we work with have a lot of data from a lot of different countries. They don’t make decisions hastily as it can take them 12-24 months to implement and roll out a mobile solution.
In other words, current mobile web projects for large companies are based on requirements written last year, during the height of the iPhone obsession. In addition, the iPhone’s share of mobile web traffic remains out of proportion to its sales figures.
That certainly influences web developers. If clients ask only for the iPhone, and their logfiles bear out this request, then doing an iPhone-only site makes sense.
Still, I believe that any mobile requirements being written today will be more diverse in approach, and that clients will start to appreciate writing something that can run on more than one platform. As to traffic market share, I expect the iPhone to lose some to everybody else, but I have no idea how much or how fast.
Mobile is becoming hip in web development land. Web developers who want to impress other web developers increasingly turn to mobile.
Unfortunately “mobile” means the iPhone here, because it’s the only device web developers have access to, and because it supports the largest swathe of nifty tricks. Besides, it’s the only platform that ensures that other web developers will be able to appreciate the results.
All this is quite natural in the current phase of mobile web development. Unfortunately iPhone-centeredness reinforces the idea that mobile web development is only about the iPhone.
Still, it’s not unnatural of web developers to start at the top of the market, especially if the top device is all they own.
I bought an iPhone in 2008, did a little bit of testing, and didn’t really think about the rest of the mobile world.
Then I got lucky when Vodafone gave me access to lots and lots of devices, as well as some people who know their way around them. That gave me the opportunity to dig down deeply in the mobile browser market.
The average web developer, however, has to make a serious investment to get that far. He’ll have an iPhone or Android for personal use, but will need at least two or three more devices if he wants to get into the mobile web seriously. Not all web developers are willing to make this investment; especially not when they have no mobile clients yet, or those clients only ask for the iPhone.
So I can understand why web developers postpone the heavy investments that ar necessary to truly switch over to mobile.
But you don’t even really need to be familiar with the technology, all you have to do is take a look at Twitter on any given day at the discussion going on with web developers. Quite a bit of it revolves around bitching about cross-platform issues, which normally means getting the stuff to work on different browsers even when we’re dealing with full desktop layout. Now we’re talking about supporting different device resolutions and orientations all using different browsers (or at least different versions)? I can’t see the web devs I know jumping out of their seats to volunteer for that.
Bitching about IE is a bonding ritual. I’ll thank you for not making fun of web development’s most important cultural achievement
What web developers must understand is that IE doesn’t matter on mobile! This is the biggest single advantage of crossing over to the mobile web, and web developers’ eyes start to glow whenever I make this point. (They’ll have to find another browser to bitch about, though.)
Incidentally, web developers are calling the shots on mobile; and not Microsoft. Microsoft can make IE matter by improving the mobile browser to IE9-like levels, but if it doesn’t it’s out of the mobile browser race.
Besides, exactly why do web developers bitch about IE? Because they insist on getting everything to work perfectly! If they had the courage to deny IE users a few advanced features, the level of bitching would drop significantly.
Fortunately, this attitude is going to die pretty soon. On mobile it’s just plain impossible to give every single browser the same experience.
On mobile we must use progressive enhancement. We must deny users of certain browser certain advanced features, either because they’re not supported or they are so very hard to implement that it just doesn’t make sense to waste time on them.
Progressive enhancement is the key to mobile web development. In the next installment I’ll talk about this concept a bit more.
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