A browser for a watch

In February 1999, when my very first salary as a web developer arrived, I bought two things I wanted but so far couldn’t afford: a CD player and a watch. The CD player is still around somewhere in my new house, waiting to be connected. The watch, curiously, stopped working pretty soon after I stopped working for employers. Freelancers don’t need timekeeping, apparently. That was in 2002, and I haven’t worn a watch since.

Now there’s the Apple Watch. (Also a whole slew of Android Wear watches, but guess which type gets most attention?) I don’t really see the use case, but that might be my lack of imagination. Anyway, my job is not to discuss use cases, but browsers — or rather, the lack of them.

As far as I can determine the Apple Watch does not run the full Safari browser, but it does run a WebView for certain apps that display their data in HTML. Why is that?

Clearly, the WebView is considered necessary to the Watch — mostly likely because apps that Apple deems critical need a WebView. (Incidentally, as long as that’s the case native hasn’t “won” yet.) But if there is a WebView, why not a full browser?

What follows is slightly-informed speculation. I may be totally wrong. Still, it’s fun to think about such issues.

Potential problems

I see two reasons for the lack of a browser: hardware and user experience.

It’s possible that the current Watch hardware isn’t yet powerful enough to run a full browser, and that Apple will make sure that any app using the WebView doesn’t do anything heavy such as running JavaScript or animations. Even if that’s the case right now, the problem will go away as hardware matures, and I don’t think it’s the fundamental reason why the Watch doesn’t have a browser.

Instead, consider the user experience. How do you enter a URL on your Watch? How do you fill out a form? You don’t, as far as I can see — there may not even be enough space on the display for a Back button.

Size and ideal viewport

But it gets worse when we consider physical size and resolution. What’s the number of pixels on the Watch? Apple isn’t telling yet (odd), so I looked at the Samsung Gear, which is at 320x320.

The 320x320 are device pixels, though; not CSS pixels. That is, the ideal viewport of a website on any watch will be smaller than 320px. (You know, just buy my book and read chapter 4. Both kind of pixels as well as ideal viewports are explained there and I don’t feel like repeating myself.)

The ideal viewport size for any browser depends on the width of the device and the typical distance from your eyes. (TV browser vendors haven’t figured that out yet, but it’s still true.)

Yesterday evening, when I formulated the theory set forth here, I did some calculations, applied some heuristics (colloquially called “guessing”), and decided on a likely ideal viewport size of 160px because Apple doesn’t do complicated fractions. Today I was notified that the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus have left their customary 320px ideal viewport size and have 375px and 414px, respectively. So much for Apple not doing complicated fractions. (It’ll be good for responsive design, though. Get people to break out of the 320px-mould.)

So, briefly. The Apple Watch is about 42mm wide. The iPhone 4S (latest model I own) is more like 54mm wide, so the Watch is 80% of the width of the iPhone (though not the Plus). That would mean that the ideal viewport is 80% of 320px, or about 256px.

Distance

But this number considers only the physical screen size, not the distance you hold the watch from your eyes. What is that distance? More to the point, is it larger or smaller than the distance you hold your phone from your eyes?

Since I used to wear a watch the “look at watch” gesture is still hardwired in my nervous system. I took a phone, pretended to wear a watch, and looked at both. The phone was closer to my eyes. To validate this admittedly rather unscientific result I asked on Twitter, and a slight majority of respondents agreed with me. (That may depend on the kind of watch they’re wearing. Maybe smart watch users already learned to keep it closer to their face.)

Because, apparently, Apple wants to get non-geeks in on the Watch, I think they’re taking the use case where you hold your watch further from your eyes than your phone very seriously. In that case, the watch’s ideal viewport would be even narrower than 256px.

max-width: 260px

Here my reasoning stalls, though. Since Apple does do complicated fractions nowadays, the Watch’s ideal viewport could be anything, though I still think about 260px would be the upper limit.

What can you show in a 260px-wide (or even narrower) website? Not bloody much, that’s for sure. I’m assuming that this is the real reason the Watch doesn’t have a browser yet: current websites would look crap, and even a Watch-optimised website would be hard to use, especially when you add a total lack of keyboard and other browser features we take for granted.

So does that mean that the Watch will never have a browser? I don’t think so. A memory from 2009 surfaced, and I think it contains a possible solution to the conundrum.

Web Slices revisited

Back in 2008/9, in the run-up to IE8, I worked with Microsoft a lot, and even had a few IE peeps over to speak at conferences. One of the features they touted was Web Slices, a neat idea that didn’t survive. (Incidentally, this is one difference between Microsoft and Apple. Apple takes one or two good ideas and runs with them, while Microsoft takes two or three good ideas and drowns them in dozens of of indifferent or bad ones. But I digress.)

Here is an article that explains Web Slices. Basically, the idea is that web developers define a certain area in their site, which can be shown independently from the main page. In the case of IE8, you had to give the area a class="hslice" (clearly microformats-inspired) and it’s subsequently shown in the browser’s Favorites bar.

Apple might do something similar. It might create a (likely remarkably ugly) HTML construct that allows web developers to define areas of their site that people can send over to their Watch for constant viewing.

A browser for a watch

As far as I can see something like Web Slices could get the Apple Watch (or any watch, for that matter) into the browser-using world. It would work something like this:

  1. You use Safari on your iPhone to surf to a site, as normal.
  2. The site’s developer has marked certain areas (HTML elements) with something like class="hslice".
  3. If you touch one of these areas and then do something else, the slice is sent to your Watch for viewing there. (That “something else” is going to be tough to define; Apple doesn’t want to detract from a regular iPhone browsing experience, but on the other hand needs a simple gesture.)
  4. Now the web slice lives on your Watch and is updated (likely via the iPhone). You can glance at it whenever you feel like it, and probably fiddle around a bit with scrolling and possibly tapping to load a new page (on the Watch or on the iPhone?)

I’m not saying that this is the only solution to browsing on your Watch, but it’s the only one I’m seeing so far that does not involve very narrow websites that just aren’t usable.

Still, even if I have been blessed with miraculous foresight there are several very tricky interface decisions to be taken — I noted some in my summary above. And Apple doesn’t release stuff that doesn’t work very well. So they’re still working on it (or on a completely different solution), and that’s why the Watch doesn’t have a browser yet.

Anyway, this is all slightly-informed speculation, as I said. Take it with a grain of salt, but thinking about such issues makes you understand browsers in the brave new many-device world better.

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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