A List Apart

Menu
Issue № 320

Smartphone Browser Landscape

by Published in Browsers, Mobile/Multidevice, Interaction Design44 Comments

Users expect websites to work on their mobile phones. In two to three years, mobile support will become standard for any site. Web developers must add mobile web development to their skill set or risk losing clients.

How do you make websites mobile compatible? The answer is obvious: By testing them on all mobile phones, and by solving the problems you encounter. But, that’s a useless answer. It’s impossible to test your designs on every mobile phone out there. Within the mobile phone landscape, there are at least ten operating systems (OSs) and fifteen browsers that require consideration. Mobile devices are expensive, and not every web developer can afford to buy five to ten of them. Testing “on all mobile phones” is impossible for most web developers.

In this article, I’ll give you an overview of the mobile web market, as well as phone platforms and their browsers, so that you can decide which mobile devices to test on. Then, we’ll look at how to set up a mobile test bed.

The smartphone market

Web developers should concentrate their testing efforts on smartphones. All good mobile browsers run on one smartphone platform or another. (Few non-smartphones have good browsers. That will change, but for now it’s true.) This begs the question: What is a smartphone? Here’s how I paraphrase the mobile industry’s more-or-less official definition:

A smartphone is a phone that runs a recognizable OS on which the user can install applications.

The smartphone market is divided into several submarkets, each of which has a distinct audience. For more information, read Tomi Ahonen’s articles on smartphone consumers and smartphone market share.

                                               
Smartphone market overview
MarketShareOSsConsumers
High-end20%iOS
Android
webOS
MeeGo
Windows Phone 7
BlackBerry OS6
Within the high-end group, users care about web surfing and applications above anything else, and they’re willing to pay for these features.
Business35%BlackBerry
Symbian
Windows Mobile
Windows Phone 7
The business group includes phones that companies buy for their employees. The IT department decides which OS can access the company network so that users can retrieve e-mail and browse secure intranets.
Mid-range45%Android
Symbian
BlackBerry
bada
Windows Mobile
Within the mid-range category, users are interested in music, a good camera, and/or easy texting (which requires a hardware keyboard)—all in an affordable device.

Notes:

  • In 2009, about 175 million smartphones were sold worldwide. The market is expected to grow by 90% this year.
  • Android is moving into the mid-range market with devices such as the Vodafone 845 that have cheaper, less powerful hardware.
  • Now that Microsoft has released Windows Phone 7, Windows Mobile will disappear.
  • MeeGo was not available at the time of this writing. It is likely to hit the market in the first quarter of 2011.

A game of platforms

The current fight in the mobile world is about platforms. While the operating system is the most important ingredient of a platform, app stores and browsers are also important.

A platform competes with other platforms in its market, and that’s where it gets interesting for web developers. Every platform has its own default browser, and if a certain platform should win the war, its browser would gain a large market share and force web developers to pay attention to it.

In the high-end market, iOS and Android are the current front-running platforms. However, in 2011, they may get competition from Windows Phone 7 (Microsoft) and MeeGo (Nokia). BlackBerry OS6 (RIM) may try to enter this market, too.

Attention must be paid

The problem is that most web designers and developers (not to mention the entire blogosphere) fall squarely in the high-end market. A cultural bias exists against OSs aimed at any other market. As a result, most people focus on the struggle between iOS and Android, and ignore the rest. This has to change.

In the mid-range market, Symbian (Nokia) is dominant right now, but bada (Samsung), BlackBerry (RIM), and the new mid-range Androids (Google) are strong competitors.

The business market is conservative. Although iOS tries to penetrate this market, and Android presumably wants to do the same, they haven’t yet succeeded. BlackBerry and Symbian continue to rule, with a smattering of Windows Mobile on the side.

The situation is complex, especially for someone who’s just starting out with the mobile web. I’ve created a mobile market overview table to help you make sense of it all.

The mobile browser market

Although the platform wars will, in large measure, shape the future mobile browser landscape, web developers are likely more interested in the present environment. Let’s take a look at the current mobile browser market.

There’s only one source of mobile browser market share information: StatCounter. It does have its limitations: Their browser classification is sometimes strange, and the sites on which they measure traffic select themselves by subscribing to the service. Still, there is no other source of data. So what does StatCounter say for November 2010?

                                                                                                                    
Global browser stats for November, 2010
ShareBrowserNotes
22%OperaStatCounter lumps Opera Mini and Opera Mobile together. My personal estimate, based on discussion with Opera, is that about 90% of this number is Mini.   
22%SafariStatCounter splits up iOS into iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. It includes iPad stats with the Safari desktop—not in the mobile statistics. Therefore, this figure excludes the iPad.
19%BlackBerryThis encompasses mostly the OS5 and older models, which run a browser with a homegrown rendering engine. From OS6 on, BlackBerry uses a WebKit-based browser, and that will make our job a lot easier.
17%NokiaNokia’s WebKit-based browser comes in various flavors, some of which are better than others. Unfortunately StatCounter does not differentiate between each flavor.
11%AndroidThe Android market is pretty fragmented when it comes to browsers. There are some subtle differences between browsers on HTC and Sony Ericsson devices. Expect problems to arise from these inconsistencies.
4%NetFrontNetFront runs mostly on older phones from Asian vendors, notably Sony Ericsson. This figure includes the Sony PlayStation Portable as well as other gaming devices.
1%UCWebThe most popular browser in China. It offers little functionality.
1%SamsungStatCounter lumps all Samsung browsers together, from old NetFront-based phones to the new WebKit-based bada.

These are global stats; traffic shares differ quite a bit from country to country. Find your own country’s stats before deciding which browsers to support. You may want to study your client’s log files to learn which devices people are using to visit the site.

If you’re interested, compare these traffic share stats to sales share stats reported by Gartner; you’ll discover many differences.

iPhone dominance

If you compare the traffic and sales share stats, you’ll notice that Safari for iOS’s traffic market share is out of proportion to its sales market share. Keep this fact in mind while building mobile websites, but don’t use it as an excuse to test only on the iPhone.

There are two reasons why the iPhone dominates: First, iOS is the first platform created specifically for mobile web surfing. As a result, people who want to surf on their phone choose the iPhone (or, sometimes, Android). Second, Apple made sure that those who bought the iPhone would get a flat-fee data plan which encourages web surfing.

The flat-fee data plan is disappearing, however. AT&T in the US, and new iPhone carriers such as Vodafone in Europe, now offer a capped data plan because it is in their economic interest to do so. In the past, consumers reviled T-Mobile in Europe and especially AT&T in the US because they could not maintain good data connections (or even voice connections) for iPhone users. They had no economic incentive to improve their service because more iPhone data traffic wouldn’t generate more income for them. Hence the change in plans.

For this reason, as well as the increasing popularity of other OSs, I feel that the days of iPhone dominance are numbered, although I cannot predict how quickly that will happen.

The best mobile browsers

So what are Safari’s main competitors for Best Mobile Browser?

Currently I rate four mobile browsers as “Excellent,” my highest rating:

  1. Safari for iOS—the best mobile browser overall,
  2. Android WebKit,
  3. Dolfin for Samsung bada—by far the fastest mobile browser, and
  4. BlackBerry WebKit, the new default browser for OS6 and higher. (Currently only available on the BlackBerry Torch.)

All four browsers support touch events, which are absolutely crucial to any seamless touchscreen-based interface. Also, they are all based on the WebKit rendering engine. Apple created it, and Google, Samsung, and RIM made it the starting point for their own browsers. (As did Nokia, Palm, and most recently LG.)

There is no unified WebKit on mobile

However, WebKit and touch events do not necessarily make an excellent browser. Recently, LG released Phantom, a browser for low-end phones. Despite the fact that it’s WebKit-based and supports touch events, it is not very good.

This underscores a general rule of the utmost importance to web developers: There is no WebKit on mobile. I tested nine mobile WebKit-based browsers and they all behave differently. Not wildly so: Baseline CSS support is good, and JavaScript is definitely workable. Still, each one has its problems and strong points.

Because of this variability, it’s important to test your websites in as many WebKit-based browsers as you can. Don’t assume your website will work on the Android or BlackBerry WebKit-based browsers just because it works in Safari.

The good browsers

The Apple, Google, Samsung, and RIM default browsers form what I call the Excellent class. Below them is what I call the Good class: this includes Opera Mobile, Palm WebKit for webOS, and MicroB, the Gecko-based default browser for Nokia’s Maemo OS, which will soon be replaced by MeeGo.

These browsers do not support touch events, and zooming varies in each implementation. From a pure CSS and JavaScript point of view however, you’ll encounter few problems.

Of the three, Opera Mobile is the most important, because it serves as a default browser for many Windows Mobile devices where the vendor decided IE wasn’t good enough. Currently, it’s an alternative for Nokia WebKit on Symbian, the largest mobile OS.

Opera Mini

Opera Mini is an extremely important browser and you should definitely test your sites with it, because of the unique way it handles web surfing. It’s available for iOS and Android, as well as a host of other OSs.

Opera Mini is different from all other browsers we’ve discussed so far, including Opera Mobile. Where the other browsers just download the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, interpret it, and render it, Opera Mini does something quite different. When you request a page in Opera Mini, that request goes to a special Opera Mini server. The server downloads the assets, interprets them, and renders the page. Then it sends back an image of the resulting page to your phone. You view the image via the Opera Mini client.

The advantage is that the Opera Mini client needs very little memory, which makes it especially suited to low-end, inexpensive devices. In addition, the actual data download consists only of a highly compressed image.

Opera Mini’s disadvantage is that it offers no client-side interactivity: If clicking on a link fires a JavaScript event handler for some Ajaxy goodness, Opera Mini goes back to the server to ask for instructions. The server handles the script and sends back an image of the updated page. However, it is important to note that this is a feature, and not a failure. For many people around the world, giving up client-side interactivity saves a lot of money, both in device and data plan costs.

Opera Mini is not the only mini browser. The most popular Chinese browser is UCWeb, which works on similar principles. I believe its homegrown rendering engine is lousy—in some situations it can’t even handle a simple link. Their switch to WebKit is only a matter of time.

Nokia WebKit

In the first year of sales, Microsoft sold 240 million copies of Windows 7. Many of them shipped with IE8, of course. In 2009, Nokia sold 432 million devices. Over half of them had a Nokia WebKit browser as a default.

In other words, last year more copies of Nokia WebKit were pushed into the market than IE. Nokia WebKit is staggeringly huge. Still, its traffic market share is modest; the average Nokia user doesn’t surf the web nearly as often as the average iPhone user. That could change, though, and your websites must be ready.

There’s an older Nokia WebKit browser that runs on the S40 (the low-end OS) as well as older Symbian devices (up to S60v3 feature pack 1). There is also a newer Nokia WebKit browser that runs on newer Symbian devices. The latter is a bit odd, but workable. The former is more difficult. If you’re not sure which browser your Symbian phone has, run the Acid 3 test. The later browser will score around 50, while the earlier one will fail completely. Stephanie Rieger has written a great series of articles about Nokia WebKit that’s full of stuff you need to know.

Sites aimed exclusively at the US/Canadian market can mostly ignore the Nokia WebKit browser. Nokia has negligible market share in North America. Sites aimed at audiences in other regions should be tested on this browser, however.

Old BlackBerry

Before OS6, BlackBerry ran its own homegrown browser, which was not a success. Unfortunately, the vast majority of BlackBerry owners still have this older browser; OS6 has hardly hit the market yet. But that’ll change.

JavaScript performance is the biggest problem with the old BlackBerry browser. (It’s pretty much absent.) On OS4.6 and before, this problem was almost unsolvable. OS4.61 and higher offer at least some script functionality, but it’s very cumbersome up until OS6, so you should just forget about scripting entirely for older BlackBerry browsers.

What about IE?

I’ve already covered several browsers that I urge you to test your site on—the total test browser count is already higher than for the average desktop site. There’s a ray of hope between all the gloom, however: IE doesn’t matter on mobile.

The default browser in Windows’ Phone 7 is based on IE7 and incorporates some IE8 features. That’s better than Windows Mobile’s default browser, which is based on IE6. Older versions are based on IE4. Although Windows Phone 7 could become a hit, I believe it won’t ever command a 65% market share as it does on the desktop. I estimate that, in time, Microsoft will conquer 10 to 15% of the smartphone market, tops.

So the question becomes: Do we web developers dust off our IE knowledge, and force IE users to download extra style sheets? Do we force all users to download IE code branches over a mobile connection? Or do we ignore IE? I’m in favor of the latter.

Microsoft is aware of this problem, and knows it can make IE Mobile matter by upgrading it to IE9 levels. In fact, this is being done right now. If all our sites suddenly work in a future version of IE Mobile, all the better! And we might even start testing on it. But we’re not required to laboriously work around one IE bug after another, as we do for the desktop.

Other browsers

There’s a few other browsers that you can ignore right now but that could conceivably become important in the future:

  • NetFront is still used widely on older Samsung and Sony Ericsson devices, but it’s way behind the other browsers and will likely disappear in the not-too-distant future. A word to the wise: Ignore NetFront. It takes a lot of effort to support it.
  • Obigo is LG’s browser of choice, and it is serious about keeping up with the other browsers. Where up until version 7.x it had its own rendering engine, it is now switching to WebKit. The first WebKit-based Obigo browsers are expected in early 2011.
  • An Android beta of Firefox is available, but it still lacks important mobile features such as touch events. Mozilla’s bigger problem is that mobile users will not download another browser just because they can. So I think you can safely ignore Firefox for now, although that will change if a device or platform vendor starts using Firefox as its default browser.

Your mobile test bed

Now, let’s apply your new knowledge of platforms and browsers to create a test setup you can use.

Start testing

Start testing right now. Sure, you may only have one or at most two phones to use, but you will learn a lot just by viewing your site on any phone.

The most tricky mobile problem is one you can address right away: The tiny display. Every mobile phone has a tiny display by desktop standards, and your site needs to fit in it. Start experimenting immediately. Don’t worry that your devices are not representative of market share. Any mobile test is better than no mobile test.

Getting devices

Then it’s time to shell out some money. You probably already have an iPhone or Android. Buy a BlackBerry or a Nokia Symbian—whichever is more popular where you live. Choose a medium-new, popular model. This will represent the smartphone masses that rarely browse the web—yet.

If you don’t have a big budget, buy a Nokia or BlackBerry non-touchscreen device. If you have money, reserve some for a non-touchscreen anyway. Not all users have a touchscreen, and you should definitely get acquainted with other input modes. If you have budget left for a third or even a fourth device, consider any platform I already mentioned, bada, Windows Phone 7, or Windows Mobile. Pick the one or two that have the greatest market share in your part of the world.

Install browsers

Go through my browser list and install absolutely every browser you can download on the devices you already have. Pay special attention to Opera Mini and UCWeb.

Test services

By now you have two to four devices with maybe six to ten browsers in total. If you still have a budget left, buy more. Without a budget to buy devices, you have two choices: test services or emulators.

The two main test services are Device Anywhere and Perfecto Mobile. Compare them and decide which one you like best.

These services have rows upon rows of mobile phones lying in their labs with webcams pointed at each of them, and you can access them through your desktop browser to test anything you want. This costs some money, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying the devices.

Emulators

While emulators are the cheapest way to conduct mobile testing, I admit I’m not a big fan of emulators, because to be really good, the mobile browser has to be ported to Windows (or Mac), and much can go wrong in that process.

Go through the emulator list and install as many as you can. Unfortunately, most need an SDK to run within, which will bloat your computer.

Browser list

Once you have a mobile test setup and clients who want their sites to work on mobile, make a generic browser list to insert into your contracts. Your client needs to know which browsers their site is going to work on.

Two browsers are inevitable: Safari and Opera Mini. Clients will likely ask for Android, too, and the mobile-savvy ones will insist on BlackBerry or Symbian. Agree on browser versions; this probably depends on the devices, test services, or emulators you have available. There are a few tricky bits here:

  • Remember that BlackBerry OS4.6 or lower cannot run complicated JavaScript. Besides, you should let your client know that you may need to switch off the script in later BlackBerries, too. Only OS6 with the WebKit-based browser is safe to support.
  • We already talked about Nokia WebKit’s versions. Try to leave out the older version; it’ll save you a lot of headaches.
  • There was a major Android WebKit upgrade between 1.6 and 2.0. Make sure your contract specifies which Android version(s) you’re going to test on.

Even if your client only asks for the iPhone, make sure your site works reasonably well on at least one other mobile browser. Never pass up a chance to practice.

Progressive enhancement is your friend

Progressive enhancement is your mobile development friend. Not everything will work on every mobile browser, but that’s OK. Not everything needs work on all browsers. If somebody uses Opera Mini and doesn’t see your animations, that’s acceptable. And be prepared to switch off your script entirely for older BlackBerries.

Progressive enhancement will become widely used once mobile web development becomes commonplace. On the desktop you are forced to keep your IE users happy, but on mobile the situation is quite different. So don’t hesitate to turn functionalities off for some browsers. As long as the user can read the content and use the navigation you’ve done your duty.

Mobile: the new frontier

I hope this huge amount of information has given you a starting point for your own adventures on the mobile web. It’s going to be difficult; mostly because it’s so different from the desktop web. Besides, the detailed browser knowledge that we take for granted on the desktop is not available for the mobile web just yet.

That shouldn’t stop you from experimenting, though. Just try something that makes sense to you. Sometimes it won’t work, but that’s all part of the game. And if it does work, please write about it. Your fellow mobile web developers need the information.

Good luck, and remember: you’re not alone.

Reading list

Here’s a reading list of mobile authorities. Subscribe so that you can stay informed on where the mobile market is heading:

  • Tom Ahonen, a former Nokia executive, writes Communities Dominate Brands. This is the place to go for all kinds of stats. Reading his blog will give you a desperately-needed, non-web-centric general overview.
  • Cloud Four Blog by Jason Grigsby. Jason is both a web developer and a mobile developer and pays particular attention to the media queries and native vs. web apps debates.
  • Vision Mobile is a mobile market analysis and strategy firm that publishes a very interesting blog featuring provocative op-ed pieces.
  • jQuery Mobile is John Resig’s latest project. jQuery is the first JavaScript library with a definite mobile browser strategy. The Sencha library is also an option, but it has started out as an iPhone/Android-only library and is only now adding more platforms.
  • Yiibu by Bryan and Stephanie Rieger, publishes excellent articles about mobile web development and the various Nokia browsers. The site as a whole is an example of how we should go about mobile web development.
  • Luke Wroblewski is a web designer with a specific interest in mobile. His touch gesture diagrams are especially interesting.
  • WAP Review by Dennis Bournique mainly follows the mid-to-low-end market. He is known for exhaustively testing the mini browsers (Opera Mini, UCWeb, and similar ones). Dennis also features new mobile sites found on the web, which you can study for ideas.
  • PinchZoom is Brian Fling’s mobile web company. There are many useful articles here.
  • The Asymco blog by Horace Dediu follows the mobile market avidly, and has many a good insight to share.
  • Mobile Industry Review is another high-level source that covers the entire mobile world.
  • @EricssonLabs on Twitter will point you to the most important mobile stories of the moment.
  • This Is Mobility is by Mike Rowehl, a mobile developer interested in the web. In addition to following the mobile world, Mike occasionally writes about how the mobile world views the web world, which makes for an interesting change in perspective.
  • The Morgan Stanley Mobile Internet Report (PDF; huge) is probably the most complete overview of the mobile web currently available, even though it’s a year old.
  • I founded the mobile web mailing list where plenty of thought leaders discuss mobile browsers, the mobile web, the mobile context, and other important topics.
  • And finally the mobile section of my own site, QuirksMode. I write about the mobile market as seen by a web developer, including some densely technical topics that will become required knowledge for mobile web developers.

Editor’s note: this article was revised on 12-16-10 to update flat-fee Iphone data plan information.

44 Reader Comments

Load Comments