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Friday, December 30, 2011

Learning From 2011

It's time to summarize at least few mistakes or epic fails of the year, hoping the next one will try to follow a better direction.
I won't mention anything related to war, politic, Berlusconi, or fashion related stuff, other more prepared than me will do via pictures or posts, all I gonna talk about is the field I am concerned about: web and mobile web oriented technologies and facts.
The order is completely random, so grab a mug of coffee, take few minutes, and read 'till the end, forgetting for once tl;dr philosophy ;)

The Partially (Multi)? Touch Device Case

This has been the most annoying fact of the year: vendors going out with freaking powerful mobile devices with touch or multi touch capable screen/hardware not exposed through the browser and only available for native apps.
We are not talking about potentially "dangerous" technologies as WebGL could be, we are talking about the most basic thing able to break 140% the user experience.
If a user plays a native game or use a native map, as classic Map application could be, she will naturally use at least a finger, or more, to interact with the screen. Interaction does not mean scroll the page and nothing else, interaction means full control of what the user is doing with the screen.
As soon as the user surf the web, the browser pretends to know what the user would like to do on the screen without giving web developers any control over those actions.
The inconsistent behavior comes when the viewport meta tag is used to block, as example, the zooming in and out gesture because the whole layout has been developed for a static viewport that should not change.
In this case, only few vendors ( Apple ) or browsers ( Opera Mobile ) got it right, any other vendor with a WebKit based browser got it wrong. Here a few examples:

IE9 Mobile Epic Fail

IE9 is a great browser, compared with all other previous version, and it's freaking fast. This is true for both desktop and mobile phones but in latter case, IE9 is an epic fail when it comes to User Interaction.
There is no bloody way to intercept a user moving a finger on the screen, and standard W3C Touch Events are not supported.
You may think: oh well, I gonna use mouse events then ... and you are wrong, these are not fired until the user release her finger so ... forget about it, no "scroll" hacks will work as expected there ... also why on earth when everybody else is disabling JS actions during scrolling, IE9 Mobile fires it all the time?

Sad part is that Microsoft is investing a lot into HTML5, but if the most basic thing as Touch Events are, is not there, no reason to have the fastest mobile Canvas implementation because no game will be interactive, and no web app can be created as desired.
Hopefully IE10 will simply follow W3C exposing both Touch and TouchList in a meaningful way ... please don't screw this or few developers will even consider to write software for this browser, thanks.

webOS 2 Sad Fail

I have upgraded few minutes ago my Pre 2 to webOS 2.4.4 ... and I was expecting more from this update. My Palm Pre 2 exposes correctly multi touches through the system, but the web browser does not expose them and this is freaking annoying. Same IE9 behavior and at least at the end of 2011 I was expecting such simple browser update able to bring my Palm to the next level: User Interaction Through The Web ... FAIL.
The good old native Google Maps application for webOS 2.0.X is gone. This app was working like a charm and it was exposing multi touches through the multi touches capable screen ... now I have a slower and flicking version of Bing maps that is not even able to render pinch/spread without loosing the position on the screen since everything gets stuck truly easily.
Now, I have no idea why this happened and why somebody wasted time to do this ... it's just worse than before and the browser still does not expose multi touches ... come on guys, this phone did not deserve to die like this.

Ultra Powerful ... "broken" Androids

It does not matter if we have 16 cores in our expensive smart phone when developers life is made harder for no reason ... with most recent Android phones we could create any sort of web application but here again, no-f*cking-body exposes TouchList via browser except few tablets out there.
OK, still better than nothing, as it is for IE9 Mobile, FF Mobile ( I will come back later to this one ), or webOS browser, but how comes 3rd parties browsers such Opera Mobile are able to bring TouchList and expose multi touches through the multi touches capable screen and native browsers are all lacking of this basic feature?
You don't even want to know how we managed to bring multiple touches in android devices, all you need to know is that is basically a hack and it requires a native application wrapper and this is, in my opinion, ridiculous!
Nowadays, all users with a friend that uses an iPhone, will consider the multi touch web app broken in its android: come on, I use two fingers in other things why I cannot do the same in this web site/application?

FireFox Mobile Fail

I don't know where to start with this browser ... I mean, guys, this is not Desktop, this is a touch screen. If you decide that the user cannot even scroll a paragraph horizontally because your freaking cool settings or bookmark view has to show up instead, you should create your own device and make the phone 3 times larger: 1/3 for the actual screen, 2/3 for your things nobody expect to appear during navigation.
About touches, at least most recent version implements touch events but performances are still too bad compared with native browsers or Opera Mobile, and the fact settings or bookmarks show up when we touch close to the edge of the screen, plus the fact AFAIK there is no way to avoid this, make this browser not suitable for full screen web games/apps based on canvas: slow and unusable ... please fix/drop this!

UpdateIt must be said that latest FF mobile brings better canvas performances and apparently it exposes a not so fast WebGL. I dd not know this the moment I wrote this post so FF Mobile is definitively already going to the right direction.

iOS Gesture Events VS Others

These are not standard and nobody should care. The moment we can rely in TouchList and multi touches exposes through this interface, the problem is solved 'cause we can implement by our self any gesture we want.
No need to wait 'till on spread/pinch are implemted and documented, just please give us TouchList and take your time after to do things properly. TouchList has been already defined ... that's all we need so far, thanks!

The Curious Case of Opera Mobile

Opera did weird things this year ... it switched from partial ES3 support to full ES 5.1 support ... what the hell guys, congratulations! Still there is no way to understand numbers of this browser (again: Opera Mobile, NOT Mini) .
Today, I can say Opera Mobile is one of the fastest and most capable browsers I have been dealing with but the lack of many CSS3 features have been the arrow in the knee together with the fact Opera could have been the Phone Gap Like software of the year while they focused on ... I guess something else.
Don't give up guys, Opera Mobile is amazing and people may chose to download it as soon as most common HTML5/CSS3 things are working as expected and also you may expose freaking cool stuff without necessarily follow W3C, giving web developers the possibility to distribute applications directly through your browser as native wrapper ( and fallback to Webkit for iOS ) .
Opera has always been pioneer, and it's time to be pioneer on mobile too because on desktop I am afraid to tell you it's hard to compete. Firefox, Chrome, and Webkit Nightly, are really advanced and I believe bigger teams, what we are missing is a not so fragmented browser that works as expected in as many devices as possible because what I have seen with all webkit versions I have worked with this year was painful, hard, inconsistent, and WTF development oriented.
Last, but not least, If there is not SQL Database, don't put a native useless Database function on the global scope or shims are screwed and if you don't expose SQL Database, at least expose Indexed DB or shims are screwed.

Android Whatever

While many developers think that Android is an Operating System, I am every day more convinced that Android is a Super Kernel that has almost nothing to do with the Operating System itself.
There are too many damn versions of Android, and even same major versions do not guarantee anything.
Every device must be tested a part because every device, with every vendor specific gotcha, software, or extra cool stuff, may behave differently. Funny enough, while I was thinking this is true for the webkit based browser only, there are many exceptions device specific that do not work as expected even natively ... oh, come on, don't call it OS!
If we think about Windows, almost every piece of hardware is supported. Then we have the classic crapware every single vendor puts by default in its own distributed piece of hardware ... fair enough, at least most basic things gonna work as expected in all of them ... right?
With Android, the most basic free version has almost nothing. Cyanogenmod is the basic example, once you install it, you gonna scream for apps you expect to be there and it comes up you need the specific Gapp package ( Google Applications ).
Same thing with Kindle Fire, based on the very basic version of Android so common apps available for other tablets may not work or may not be there.
This means we can trust only a truly basic set of functionalities that are hopefully working in all distributions out there but you know, this is IT, expectations are rarely matching reality.
The performances tuning per each device is another problem, as problematic are performances of the same app through the browser compared with those through the native layer.
If you wrap your single touch full page canvas game into phone Gap, as example, you will realize how freaking fast it is compared with the same exact code through the browser ... why that? Security layer is off plus bound stuff is limited compared with the whole browser application ... fair enough? No it's not. The moment I realize it is possible to force HW accelerated rendering via native wrapper but it's not possible to do the same via browser I start screaming ... let us develop through the web or stop telling us you support standards because if these are limited intentionally then those not supported are developers themselves.

Mobile Web Apps Too Limited

I really hope I won't need to write a similar post at the end of 2012 but I am not sure there will be many progresses here ...
W3C is slow, plus it may waste their/our time. Web SQL Database is an example, something I loved screwed by dependencies free purist.
I have talked about Web SQL many times and right now I don't care about this specific topic, all I care is about moving forward.
Time to agree and promote such interface to drop it after 2 years is not the way to go.
Time to replace such interface with another one limited, slower, and not widely adopted as IndexedDB is, still not the way to go.
We need a database, please put it there one ASAP and drop 50Mb per domain/tab limit.
No fools guys, if the logic behind the Web is that user must explicitly agree give the user full control.
If a web application requires more than 50Mb give the user the possibility to increase the database.
All native apps do not care about how much space is used, these simply informs the user through system settings how much stored data there is. Google Earth, as example, even maps, these are heavy memory applications that do not ask every 5 megabytes if more space can be allowed ... this was another epic fail.
Once the user accepts the fact this web application would like to use the storage, create a way to simplify the task able to verify how much data is being stored and stop asking!
From UX perspective is like accepting an explicit file upload/manipulation and while the file is being loaded into ram asking every 200Kb if the user would like to increase the memory allocation for that file ...

What If Every Web Page Asks For Space

Nothing, same is for "what if every native app takes 4 gigs of space" ... either space is available or it's not possible ... is that easy ... but again, with an easy to access indicator and a limit that goes far beyond 50Mb the problem should not exist. User can clean the cache, or enable more space but it must be easy, as easy should be for web apps developers to understand the available space because if the device is full already, the 50 Mb limits is pointless in any case plus there are ways to trigger memory consumption behind the scene and fill up gigs of disk space/SSD ... once again, this ask on demand every time is an epic fail, imho.
FYI, the behavior I am talking about is in iOS, where Android asks only once if the disk access is allowed, then it silently fails after we reach the 50Mb limit.

Native VS Web App

Every browser is based on a native web view or similar concept, which means every browser could expose anything. I would like to be able to record user voice via web, to decode it via audio tag, to create real time video chat, to replace all native applications and to forget Android, iOS, webOS, blackberry, Symbian, MeeGo, Windows, whatever SDK ... I want to leave the SDK power to much more complicated things and I would like to be able to do most basic things via browser, all those things that the user could do with native apps, performances a part.
The gap between native and web app should be performances and nothing else indeed ... right now is: all possible nasty access to everything on native side, things that few users are rarely aware of, and almost no access to any functionality through the browser.
No idea if Chrome OS solved this but if it did, I am pretty sure it did with in-house solution, same Windows 8 will do, and this is annoying at least until a jDevice library will come out able to make all these private API consistent across all platforms ... as summary, why Mobile Web App development has to be so hard is a complete mystery to me: is it about your own markets? Fine, then stop selling us your browser is promoting Standard Mobile Web development because this sounds, so far, like a big lie.

Patent Oriented Development

When I heard that Apple patented a slide to unlock the screen I did not feel like "they are so advanced" ... I rather felt like "is anyone trying to patent my finger" ?
I move horizontally my thumb since ever and nowadays I know there is a patent for that and this is bad.
A natural movement should never be patented ... the graphic used to guide the movement could eventually be a patent but the way I do things not.
I don't want a patent to hold a fork, I don't want a patent for the position I use to sleep in a mattress, whatever weird sofa, or a chair, I don't want to do unnatural movements to unlock a touch screen.
What the hell is going on here ... if I use my nose to unlock my old android device I don't have to pay the patent indirectly, right?
Is this what is patent about? Yes, it is.
Patents are about intellectual property of whatever but the problem is that patents are expensive, are not necessarily predictable, and all these patents are doing is to block future development on top of it, unless is not the same company.
Patents are a sort of creativity barrier because if a company invents a generic something, nobody will even try to improve that invention due basic patent behind the original.
Example, I use my right hand to hold the phone and when I am talking with someone I put my right thumb on the right side of the phone.
If there is a button there, it's annoying, while if I have to swipe from left to right ... well, it's still annoying.
Will I ever implement a swiping gesture from right to left to unlock the screen because usually the way I hold the phone is with my right finger on the right side and it's more convenient to me to swipe the other way round as it is convenient for all left hand users? Nope, I don't even want to remember that thing exist, I have to create something completely new being careful that what I am doing does not touch the other patent ... cool, uh?

Hardware Patents

Same concept could be applied for hardware ... was that thing perfect? Yes, I pay the patent. Was that thing not perfect? No, I have to create something new ... even if based on laser(disc), the reason we all waited so much for new standards after the CD.
This happened with Compact Discs, and it brought us DVD first and Blu Ray after. In the meanwhile, another standard better than CDs but a bit less capable than Blu Ray died ... fair enough, we have new hardware for all these technologies but how comes in the hardware field the patent problem is not so strong as it is for the Software one?
3D TV, all vendors are making one, as well as CD players, DVD players, and Blu Ray players ... nobody cares about patents here, at least not the way we all do when it comes to Software.
I don't have any answer for this but I believe patents should be re-evaluated in their meaning because in the fastest field ever, as technology/software is, something that last for 10 years is too much and price to pay is too much as well as too much is the time between the patent pending and the patent applied status.

ES6 Focus

I have talked about this as well ... it's about what's truly needed today, at least in the Mobile Web Development, and the JavaScript.Next focus, often completely abstract over not-so-needed topics as syntax sugar and boring classes.
iOS5 brought massive performances boost to all Apple devices but even having the fastest and complete browser out there, Safari Mobile cannot do miracles when it comes to performances.
The side effect of not having performances oriented techniques in JavaScript and DOM world is that average web developers are not able to create cool stuff without draining the battery or being slightly fast only with most recent mobile devices.
The need for performances in this Mobile era should be priority number one for W3C and a possible ES 5.2 milestone, after that take even 5 years to improve syntax with all sugar you want, if necessary, at least we can push Mobile Web Development to its limit in the meanwhile while many new proposals won't bring anything interesting, as far as I can read, performances speaking.
We can deal with the fact protected and private variables are absent or different in JS, what we cannot deal with anymore is that a proper and fast 3D API is not available, that Parallels are not available, that WebWorkers are useless when it comes to move data back and forward, that postMessage requires a which require a click which is too slow but cannot be faked ontouchend or won't work anymore because not explicit ... that IndexedDB does not provide native way to join data and speed up queries, that DOM manipulation is slow, that we don't control repaints and/or reflows, that binary Arrays are still slow, that Structs like classes/objects are missing, that CSS3 is bringing logic in the view with lack of control ... etc etc ...
I don't care if Proxy are in the browser, if these are 2X slower than good old JS on mobile, you know what I mean? We need more performances now and more APIs finalized to have access to hardware layers only SDK can expose without granting any better usage than an experienced web developer.

WebGL Partial Fail

First of all this is not yet a standard, regardless the effort of the kronos group, which means browsers like Internet Explorer will never adopt this ... fair enough if we can shim through Silverlight but here comes the second point: WebGL, as well as Silverlight, are not available for mobile.
Apple exposed it for Adds only, where adds are most likely those responsible for bad Web performances, generally speaking, due massive usage of Flash or arguable usage of automations to bring canvas Adds able to slow down all netbooks and tables out there .... congratulations, I'll never get this choices ... WebGL not for developers but for designers of adds only ... can I say brilliant?
Too few mobile devices are exposing WebGL if not none of them while basically every mobile device has a GPU compatible with Open GL 2.0 ES
Still experimental, true, and already available mainly for Chrome browser where Webkit, as well as Firefox, could do the same or truly similar. The direction WebGL is taking is not good at all and I can't wait to see cool demonstrations able to run with all WebGL capable browsers ... so far, not many of them ... and this is bad.
Sony enabled WebGL in its latest version of Android, still about fragmentation, so I am expecting at least every other vendor to bring WebGL in our current devices already capable ... it was a massive fail to drop it for the whole 2011, cool things may have been experimented already on devices plus typed Arrays could have been used more even for non WebGL related tasks.

CSS3 Partial Fail

As mentioned before, CSS3 are becoming the most messed part of the whole Web stack, mobile and/or desktop. Examples with counters to change dynamically text via :after selector ... is it just me? I mean ... dafuq is that?
Internet Explorer dropped the most misunderstood proprietary feature as expression was and webkit is introducing any sort of unmanageable logic inside CSS3? ... counters? webkitTransitionEnd withou webkitTransitionStart? No way to trigger properly transitions if not without asynchronous rendering? Lots of hacks to make them work cross platform with control through JS for something written in CSS?
CSS3 is bringing MVC in Web world without the C and if we would like to create robust behaviors/interactions/applications that make sense, programming speaking, we should forget the case where the user has no JavaScript because CSS3 is becoming indirectly strongly dependent on JavaScript for many reasons ... why not bring standard DOM method to control states via JS, rather than control partially what is supposed to happen via CSS3 only? I don't get it, I have seen cool stuff, but I have not seen cool stuff adopted cross browser and I am not seeing cool stuff easy to handle via JS and/or vice-versa.
CSS3 needs notification into the JS world or we gonna have Photoshop like power without tools to control what we are doing.

As Summary

I have more things to say, and more I forgot but I thought a rant on 2011 was needed at least to check, in one year, what happened, what improved, and what did not change at all.
I hope all people that are doing hard work on daily basis to promote a better web won't take anything I wrote personal and will simply consider the point of view of somebody that works with all these things on daily basis so ... it's my personal feedback, on what I think should change ASAP and specially for mobile web development.

Happy New Year Everybody


Anonymous said...

It's really hard to take this list serious when you omit the elephant in the room: Nokia.

The point is: It's pretty transparent that you are not in a position to deliberate on the failings of your employer. With that out of the way, why do you still try to give the impression that this were an exhaustive, though opinionated, list of "epic fails"?

Microsoft, Mozilla, Google, Opera, they are all doing just fine. Nokia is not.

I'm saying this because your ultimate superior, Mr Stephen Elop, went on record quite a few times in 2011 promising to recapture and shape that very market, mobile/web apps, that your post concerns. And still, no word from you how Nokia, again and again, has failed epically in 2011 ...

Sebastian said...

Wow. Impressive post. ACK on basically all of it! Thanks for it!

Andrea Giammarchi said...

From Mobile Web Development perspective, Symbian supports Opera where I have said more than once that is the best browser for Symbian, in my opinion, and where touches work without problems.

The N9 browser is more advanced than Android browsers, touches, canvas, CSS3, and the rest work pretty well, is an epic fail that many mobile sites are still using user agent sniff and they do not recognize N9 browser as valid.

Last NOKIA phones have Windows 7.5 Mobile, which means these have IE9 Mobile and I believe I have not been nice at all with this browser which comes from NOKIA partner: Microsoft

Since Symbian is not a recent/2011 OS, since N9 does not sell in USA where most of my followers live, and since latest phones come with Windows 7.5 and all I am talking about is Mobile Web Development, and since I work for a product that supposes to work with all *non* NOKIA devices, due native NOKIA Maps application that has nothing to do with the WebView, where exactly do you think I have been unfair with this list?

Anonymous said...

Andrea, I haven't claimed that you were unfair. Feel free to vent anytime you want. I was just curious why you omitted Nokia's products.

So are you now saying that Nokia, even though they do compete with all companies that you mentioned in your post (and they do compete quite aggressively), has become irrelevant? Wouldn't that be an epic fail in itself?

Andrea Giammarchi said...

irony wants that I am not working directly with nokia browsers because we have native app there and it does not use the browser.

This year, starting actually from the end of the last one, NOKIA made a lotos changes and mainly related to the Operating System.

Being this a post about Mobile Web Development, I have included indirectly NOKIA browsers too since, as I have said, Symbian has a decent one but Opera Mobile still has much more to offer, right now, Windows has IE9 Mobile, and the N9 has one of the most capable Webkit Mobile browsers out there.

Last, but not least, main Mobile Web market share, excluding the non interactive Opera Mini, is today between Safari Mobile and Android Webkit(s) so a post about Symbian Webkit would not be that interesting, and I have posted/tweeted before about it, as well as some paragraph dedicated to a phone that does not sell in US and many other countries would not make much sense.

I have completed this post within these comments and really, I don't have much more to say ... Symbian is still maintained, MeeGo is OK but not known, Windows Phone has IE9 Mobile which is, at current status, OKish with lack of control when it comes to interaction with the page, or via canvas.

Finally, just as side note, it looks that FF Mobile, latest version, improved a lot performances, plus it exposes WebGL too ( still slow here thought ) so this is more interesting, important, for what I had to say in this post.

Happy New Year