The iPhone monoculture

This is getting frustrating.

The official CSS WG blog:

Discussed problem of WebKit monopoly on mobile and the consequent pressure for other engines to implement -webkit- properties.

Zeldman:

Webkit monoculture: threat or menace?

Guys, stop it. This is simplistic us vs. them thinking. It’s not helpful.

Now if you would say there’s an iPhone monoculture among web developers, you’d be right. But whose fault is that?

Anyone who’s worried about “WebKit monoculture” should write or publish articles about mobile web design that don’t feature the iPhone at all. If you don’t, I’m sorry to say, you’re part of the problem.

(To be fair, the ALA mobile articles do talk about other devices (even though they’re mostly Android), and the latest one doesn’t even feature screenshots of Apple devices. So I’m not picking specifically on Zeldman here.)

57%

Before we continue: there is a problem with web developers not testing on enough mobile browsers. This problem should be solved; I agree completely on that count. I just disagree on the means and the exact definition of the problem.

In the ALA interview Tantek makes an important observation:

[...] web developers believe and act as if there is a WebKit. They are coding and shipping mobile sites accordingly, by sniffing for WebKit UA strings, and by using only -webkit- properties. That effect is measurable.

In fact, Mozilla measured it on the top 30,000 sites:

Sites that use any sort of transition
4.13%
Sites that use only -webkit-transition
1.12%
Sites that use -webkit-transition and normal transition, but no others
1.21%

Which means that, of the sites that use transitions, 43% does use -moz-transition (as well as, one hopes, the Opera and Microsoft variants).

Actually that’s not bad at all. When I heard the outcry I thought almost nobody uses non-WebKit vendor prefixes. That turns out to be untrue; the problem is somewhat less serious than I expected.

Now by a curious coincidence the current market share of WebKit-based mobile browsers is also quite close to 57%. (In January it was 58%; I’ll publish the numbers later this week.)

Does 57% constitute a monoculture? I’d say No.

iPhone monoculture

Unfortunately this is the wrong question. Tantek points us in the direction of the right one, but he’s not quite on the mark.

If I talk about BlackBerry WebKit and Samsung Dolfin, the second- and third-best mobile browsers, both of which are WebKit-based, both of which support prefixed CSS3 stuff, and both of which are supposed to be part of the “WebKit monoculture,” I only draw blank stares. Web developers haven’t even heard of them.

Web developers don’t care about WebKit. They care about the iPhone.

Why do they only think about the iPhone? Because everybody does, including many luminaries who’re now shouting “Down with WebKit!”

So what we have here is an iPhone monoculture; not in the stats, but in web developers’ minds. This is the fundamental problem we must address.

What do we do about it, given the fact that the average web developer only has an iPhone to test his mobile sites on? As I said before: get them to install and test in Opera Mini. That’ll teach them how the mobile web really works.

Of course, this solution does not feature in the current discussion at all. It’s “WebKit is evil” as if it was Microsoft ten years ago. It’s “web developers should use all prefixes” as if cudgeling them with a pointless solution is going to solve the issue.

Not. Helpful.

I think it’s the educators that need a bit of education.

If you’re really worried about “WebKit monoculture,” write an article on mobile web design that doesn’t feature the iPhone at all. (Or Android.) Writing iPhone-only articles is the same as writing Chrome-only articles. Nobody does that, and for good reasons.

Instead of an iPhone, take a modern BlackBerry as the example device (honest, the browser is excellent!). Or a Windows Phone. Even a simple screenshot of Opera Mini here and there would help immeasurably.

Start talking about testing in mobile non-WebKit browsers (i.e. Opera). Start talking about other platforms besides iPhone (and Android). Start talking about mobile diversity, instead of showing the iPhone over and over and over again.

Let’s institute a temporary no-iPhone zone on web dev blogs and publications. That’ll really help.

As long as we pretend only the iPhone exists, web developers will only think about the iPhone, and the “WebKit monoculture” will only become worse.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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