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Friday, December 24, 2010

The Status of Mobile Browsing

In this year I have done more tests than ever over all these tiny and shiny portable devices and I'd like to share with the Web community the result of my experiments at the end of this 2010. "why not before xmas, ffs?" ... because whatever you bought as present for you or your relatives, will hopefully be updated soon with latest systems and related browsers :)

The Dedicated WebKit ... Nightmare!

As ppk mentioned already in Front Trends conference, we have basically only 5 browsers in our desktop PCs/Macs/Linuxes machines. Much more fun comes when we think we are dealing with a single browser, a generic WebKit based one, and we discover that there's no browser similar to another one, every bloody device has its own implementation with few exceptions represented by Safari Mobile, almost the same in iPad, iPod, and latest iPhone.

WebKit and CSS(3)

Even if the CSS engine is basically the same for every single specific implementation, the number of supported, and so called, CSS3 features, are platform and device dependent. Something works as expected, something simply does not work, while something pretends to work but it does not until we force the rendering trying to activate Hardware Acceleration.
The classic trick to do this is to apply 3D transformation to the main container of our styled stuff:

#styled-stuff-container {
-webkit-transform: translate3d(0, 0, 0);

Above technique could solve many headaches when a portion, or the whole body, looks fucked up ... give it a try but please note that GPU buffer will rarely support big images and these could cause a massive performances impact.
An ideal document size for mobile browsing should not reach more than 2~3000 pixels height ... considering a reasonable width, after that we could have problems.

Tricks a part, the horrible side effect of unsupported CSS features is that features detections are not really a solution ... "eye result" detection would be the way to go but it requires a pixel per pixel check.
The "eye result" detection is something I have invented right now as CSS check automation. We should have a snapshot of the container, saved as png, a snapshot created runtime from the rendered container, impossible with current DOM API, and two canvas elements in order to compare both image data ... where to speed up the process in JS world, we could simply compare the returned base64 encoded result of both snapshots as fast char-by-char (threaded as ints) match (e.g. "a" == "a").
This is fantasy right now, and it implicates complex, bandwidth greedy, operations I would never suggest ... but I am just saying ... that we should never trust the result we have on our desktop WebKit or another device WebKit based, we should always test results in target if we would like to avoid surprises.
Finally, messed up CSS could cause indirectly so many computation behind the scene we cannot even imagine ... until we discover the the whole interaction is compromised.
As example, those pages strongly styled in an unreasonable way through tons of overwritten or inherited CSS, in a deeply nested DOM, simply are unusable!

WebKit and JavaScript(ES5)

Under the flag "we support HTML5", many things implemented in ES5 specs are already there indeed. In few words these tiny devices are already "10 years" ahead whatever destktop browser based on Internet Explorer ... which is good, which gives us the possibility to forget all crap we use to detect, filter, change, assume, until now.
This is the reason 99% of common web libraries out there are obsolete when it comes to the massive amount of features detections these libraries use to understand the exact version of IE, Firefox, or Opera ... all this stuff is crap, is bandwidth unfriendly, and unnecessary.
A good library for mobile browsing is a library dedicated for mobile browsing ... where even features detections could cost time (slower CPUs) and where most of the time these features detection, specially those for edge cases, can be dropped in favour of the good old User Agent string.
Yes, you read correctly, features detections we know could simply fail in all these variants of WebKit based browsers.
Some device could expose hosted features that are not available, some other could not expose anything but still support what we are looking for ... there are many examples that caused me nightmares during my experiments and no simple solution.
The User Agent sniff sometimes is the best, cheap, fast, solution we could possibly adopt and it will rarely fail when it comes to mobile.
Last, but not least, faster WebKit implements V8 engine, the google diamond, but others may implement the classic JavaScriptCore, with or without "Extreme" acceleration.

Native JSON Support

Almost all mobile browsers support native JSON. This is essential for fast and safe JSON strings and JS objects conversion into JSON strings.
I am counting seconds for the day Douglas Crockford JavaScript implementation of JSON will be redundant/superfluous, same as I am counting seconds until attachEvent will disappear from the Earth!

GeoLocation API

A mobile browser that does not come with GeoLocation API support is a death device. Mobile therm talks by itself, it's the user "on the way", full stop. Remove the possibility to share or know the location and good by "to go" experience.

session and local Storage Limits

Whatever freaking cool idea you come with these storages is not enough. What all these demo and examples around the net are saying is not exact. First of all the correct way to set an item is via official API, and not via direct access:

localStorage.setItem("setItem", "whatever");

// rather than
localStorage.setItem = "whatever";

// cause you don't want unexpected results later
localStorage.getItem("setItem"); // whatever

localStorage.setItem // ... what do you expect?
// a method or "whatever"

To know more about this problem, if interested, have a look.

Finally, and most important, setItem could fail once the storage reaches the memory limit which is not exposed (hopefully yet) through the API.
In few words we can have a nice Exception the moment we try to set an item, even the same, and the storage is "full".
To avoid problems, even if this is not a solution, use a bloody try catch block every time we need to set an item:

try {
localStorage.setItem("key", "bigValue");
} catch(e) {
// now we are fucked ... where do we put bigValue?
// we can still do stuff or clear some value

The limit I am talking about is around 2Mb but it may vary.

Database API

Something nobody liked that much, something I love since the beginning. The SQLite database behind the scene is the best portable, tiny, and cross platform database engine we could possibly use on a browser. I am not a big fun of all these NoSQL fuzz, just use what the fuck you need when the fuck you need.
In this case the Web Database API provides a nice message automatically when the application tries to store more data than allowed, letting us being able to pass the limit specified at the beginning.
A good compromise is to set the initial storage value to 2 megabyte, maximum 5, and after that limit it will be the device able to allocate more space if necessary, adding other 2, up to 5, megabytes to curent database.
Rather than try catch mandatory blocks, we have callbacks for error handling but, right now, I have never been able to reproduce in a real scenario problems with the SQLite database size.


These beasts could be the ideal solution in a multi-core device. Unfortunately, webworkes do not come for free with current mobile CPUs. It does not matter if these are operated behind the scene since the scene itself could interact slower than usual due tasks priorities.
Not a big deal considering webworker are not widely supported yet ... but still bear in mind the CPU is "that one", you better learn better algo or JS practices to speed up things rather than delegate piece of massive stuff to computate on the background.
A tiny temporary block is, in my opinion, much better than a persistently slow interaction due webworkers.

Touch Support

Touch events are the mandatory choice for mobile web development ... people should completely forget about mouseover and this kind of interaction bullshit, when it comes to device ... there is no fucking mouse on device, and these events should be used only as quirk fallback for those devices that do not expose properly touch events.
Touches are truly simple and everything we need for whatever interaction: touchstart, touchmove, touchend.
There will never be a touchmove without a touchstart, neither a touchend without a touchstart. Things are slightly complicated when we assume that a touchstart, followed by a touchend, won't fire a touchmove in the meanwhile.
When we start touching our smartphone screen the area we cover with our finger may vary due pressure on the screen. If a touchstart event has been fired already but the area is "enlarging" from the same finger, we won't have another touchstart, we will be notified with a touchmove.
There are concepts as "touch tolerance" that are already applied on all layers, included hardware, but this is not enough if we would like to have full control.
Finally, touch events are a classic example where features detections fails. The only way to be sure 100% that the device will work with touch events is to listen to both touchstart and mousedown and accordingly with the one fired first, usually the touch if fired, we can switch/communicate that the device is compatible. All our detections may fail accordingly with the device or the implemented WebKit version.

The Click Event

In some device, as is for example the delicious Palm Pre 2 I am testing these days (thanks again Palm!) there are no touches, even if the browser exposes them, so it is not possible to drag or scroll via JavaScript but it is possible to trust the classic click event.
The click is indeed the only universal fallback we can use to simulate interactions. Both new and old devices, included most recent Windows Mobile with that brEwser, will always react on click events. Pal Pre 2 does not expose right functionality for quirks mousemove neither ... and I am talking about web pages, if we create our own Application through Mojo framework ... well, things changes (again).

The Canvas Element

Almost every mobile browser supports canvas. Unfortunately, the Hardware Accelerated Canvas is still a myth. Canvas will be HW Accelerated hopefully soon, but what I have spotted right now, is that as example iOS 4.0.2 or lower has a tremendously faster canvas manipulation than iOS 4.2, or the latest iOS you can install in your iPad or iPhone. I am really sorry if you have already screwed up your mobile browsing experience updating this OS with latest ... since we all know you cannot go back now, let's hope Apple QA will test properly, next update, canvas performances ... epic fail from my point of view (and I can easily demonstrate it with eye test over exactly same operations ...)

Flash ... maybe

The world #1 plugin sucks for mobile ... not all of them, but still sucks. At least the render is faster via bytecode than canvas one could be, but since we have HTML5 video element as well and since the interaction in a small screen cannot contain all those details and cool effects that Flash has given us 'till now, I don't think Flash should be considered mandatory for a mobile experience ... still, if present, Flash could be our best friend as fallback for all those "not implemented yet" HTML5 features (or in some case, give us even more ... accordingly with security risks we may face).

Gestures ... if any ...

I still don't know how to pronounce this word properly ... but it does not matter.
The only browser able to expose properly gesture and to make developers life easy is Safari Mobile. Even if all recent smartphones support gestures on OS level, this topic seems to be the most complicated thing ever to expose through the browser.
The problem number one is the conflict that these events could cause with System Gestures. If I think about Palm Pre 2 "cards" interaction and the way I love to use this phone, I can instantly imagine how many side effects "my own gestures" could cause from UX perspective ... specially if I am able to avoid System gestures defaults. The problem number two is that we may find gestures variants, just to make our life, as developers, more interesting ... isn't it? Well, as soon as these variant will be part of the newer browser version we can find on these devices, I will dedicate a post about them ... so, patience is the key! (isn't it Weronika :P)
However, if touches events are exposed correctly, some crazy dude out there (and I am not excluding me) could implement gestures through touches events.
gesturestart is when touch list length is greater than 1, gesturechange is only if gesturestart has been fired and both scale and rotate are simple Math operations, while gestureend is fired when the touch list length goes down to 1 or 0 ... almost easy stuff, we don't really need them as long as touches work.

Opera Mobile

This is a must have browser if you want a common cross device web experience or a better browser than the one you have preinstalled in that phone.
Opera Mobile does not expose touches or gestures and the interaction is compromised but as render engine and web surfing, it is a pretty damn fast and cool browser that will be hopefully installable in the most recent Windows Mobile OS, since this has the worst browser you could ever imagine, compared with all others.

Mozilla Fennec

This is in my opinion too young and too featureless to compete with WebKit based implementations first and Opera Mobile after. Mozilla guys are working harder and improving a lot ... but still too much to do and hopefully a stable and cool release before next summer?

Nothing Else

Starting from the fact I could not test all of them, and ppk is here again the man you are looking for, all I can say is that the only superior mobile browser is WebKit based, no matters which branch, as long as things I have talked about are, more or less, supported.

Marry Christmas Everybody


Drew said...

I know you didn't type that from your mobile. Four letter words aren't recognised.

Andrea Giammarchi said...

truth ... truth ...

Mike Bowen said...

You didn't mention the browser that is used on the Nokia N900 (MicroB Stock Browser)), which I might add is better than Mozilla, Opera, Chronium etc, put together.

Glenn said...

Great post, thanks for sharing.

Regarding iOS 4.0.2 having better canvas performance than 4.2 - can you share more about this?

I really want to believe this is the case, but I can't find anyone else mentioning it or demonstrating it in practice. Is Apple even aware?

Andrea Giammarchi said...

Hi Glenn, you can compare iOS <= 4.0.2 with latest directly here ... pan the map and spot the difference, same code, based on canvas drawImage