The Verge’s Nilay Patel writes that he hates browsing the Internet on his phone. He’s not alone, since mobile web browsers, as a rule, are terrible. “They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution,” Patel explains. Safari on Patel’s iPhone 6 is slow, buggy, prone to crashes, and “unable to rotate from portrait to landscape without suffering an emotional crisis.” Chrome on Patel’s Android devices, in turn, fells like “a country mouse lost in the big city, waiting to be mugged by the first remnant ad with a redirect loop and something to prove.”
Apps are crucial on mobile devices because the mobile web doesn’t perform well, and the innovation that could push it forward has stagnated. As Patel notes, “Bad PC software created the opportunity for the web to exist in the first place, just as bad mobile web performance created the market for mobile apps.” Patel reports that while apps have become “nearly irrelevant” on desktop because the web experience is “close to perfect,” apps are vitally important on mobile because the web experience is so terrible.
In Patel’s assessment, the fact that tech companies have convinced media companies to publish on platforms that are totally separate from the mobile web and are optimized for better performance on phones is a symptom of the problem — and also part of the cause. Effectively, companies like Apple and Facebook make the mobile web worse by building small versions of the web within their own platforms, sidestepping the web altogether to get around its shortcomings.
Facebook launched the Instant Articles feature, which enables content creators to publish directly on Facebook’s platform, to get around the eight-second average loading time for outside web pages. Apple News lets content providers publish directly onto iPhones, bypassing even Apple’s own Safari browser. “Taken together,” Patel writes, “Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are the saddest refutation of the open web revolution possible: they are incompatible proprietary publishing systems entirely under the control of huge corporations, neither of which particularly understands publishing or media.”
He adds that with Apple News and Instant Articles, “Apple and Facebook are turning their back on the web to build replacements for the web, and with them replacements for HTML and CSS and every bit of web innovation it’s taken 20 years of competitive development to achieve.” An even worse transgression on Apple’s part is that the company actively holds back improvements to the mobile web’s performance on iOS by not allowing anyone to build a new browser engine for the iPhone, even though Safari dominates mobile browser market share.
Perhaps developer Nolan Lawson summarized the state of Safari best when he wrote that Safari is the new Internet Explorer, in that it doesn’t keep up with the standards of the modern web (perhaps because Apple’s efforts are more focused on enabling developers to create and sell native apps). Lawson explains that there’s a wide gap between Safari and other mobile browsers — which, let’s not forget, really aren’t that great to begin with. Lawson writes:
In recent years, Apple’s strategy towards the web can most charitably be described as “benevolent neglect.” Although performance has been improving significantly with JSCore and the new WKWebView, the emerging features of the web platform – offline storage, push notifications, and “installable” webapps – have been notably absent on Safari.
Patel notes that neither content providers nor developers can fix the performance of Safari. And because Apple forbids other companies from developing alternate web rendering engines for the iPhone, there’s no competition for better performance and no incentive for Apple to invest heavily in pushing Safari forward. Patel reports that “things are mildly more open on Android, but not much,” and hints that the lack of innovation has caused stagnation in improvements to the mobile web across platforms.
It’s worth noting that poor web development and advertising overload, in the case of specific websites, also play a significant role in the users’ suboptimal experiences with the mobile web, which can’t be blamed completely on mobile browsers, no matter how poorly they perform. The mobile web’s issues are a complex set of problems, and fixing them will require both better web development, better web browsers, and more robust competition to provide the best web experience for smartphone and tablet users.