The mobile web sucks

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I hate browsing the web on my phone.

I do it all the time, of course — we all do. Just looking at the stats for The Verge, our mobile traffic is up 70 percent from last year, while desktop traffic is up only 11 percent. That trend isn’t going back; phones are just too convenient, beckoning us to waste more and more of our time gazing at their ever-larger screens.

But man, the web browsers on phones 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. Mobile Safari on my iPhone 6 Plus is a slow, buggy, crashy affair, starved for the phone’s paltry 1GB of memory and unable to rotate from portrait to landscape without suffering an emotional crisis. Chrome on my various Android devices feels entirely outclassed at times, 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.

The overall state of the mobile web is so bad that tech companies have convinced media companies to publish on alternative platforms designed for better performance on phones. Apple doesn’t allow anyone else to build a new browser engine for the iPhone, so Facebook’s Instant Articles is really just Facebook’s attempt to sidestep that restriction by building an entirely new content rendering system — Facebook’s major stated motivation for Instant Articles is an attempt to bring down the 8-second average loading time for mobile web pages. You will note that Facebook hasn’t built an app for desktops, or tried to roll out Instant Articles for the desktop; the web works just fine when the browsers actually work.

Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are a sad refutation of the open web revolution

Similarly, Apple News lets you publish directly onto iPhones, bypassing Apple’s own Safari browser, which feels mildly crazy. Yet there’s some excitement over this: I just read Ben Thompson’s excellent piece explaining how the ad market for smaller publishers leads inexorably to bloated web pages that load poorly. That piece was itself a response to John Gruber saying that Apple’s new Safari Content Blocker system would cause a “reckoning” for publishers by letting users block performance-degrading Javascript. And yes, most commercial web pages are overstuffed with extremely complex ad tech, but it’s a two-sided argument: we should expect browser vendors to look at the state of the web and push their browsers to perform better, just as we should expect web developers to look at browser performance and trim the fat. But right now, the conversation appears to be going in just one direction.

And that’s troubling. Taken together, 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. Earlier this year, I called Facebook the new AOL; Instant Articles comes from the same instinct as AOL trying to bring Time Warner’s media content into its app just before the web totally kicked its ass. 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.

How do you build Fanboys or Snowfall or What is Code using Apple’s toolset and Facebook’s when they’re entirely different? How do you do a better job of integrating video? How do you build interactive news apps? How do you create new types of advertising that address viewer complaints and draw viewer attention if you’re beholden to someone else’s platform? How do you publish breaking news quickly and update it if your work lives in multiple different walled gardens? How do you innovate in media if you have to spend technical effort just trying to publish?

How do you innovate in media if you have to spend technical effort just trying to publish?

You might think I’m being hyperbolic, but Facebook launched five Instant Articles with great fanfare on May 13th, published another on June 9th, and just one more last Monday. That’s seven articles in two months. The Verge publishes something like 40 a day. It’s harder than it looks, and in the end all those engineering hours are being spent trying to display text and video on a screen, just like the web has done for years. The entire point of the web was to democratize and simplify publishing using standards that anyone could build on, and it has been a raging, massively disruptive success for decades now. But the iPhone’s depressing combination of dominant mobile web marketshare and shitbox performance means we’re all sort of ready to throw that progress away.

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@reckless mid-2011 here. Even with the measly 2GB of RAM it handles having safari + tweetbot + messages without any issue.

— NikFinn (@NikFinn) July 15, 2015

Seriously. The iPhone 6 Plus has single- and multi-core benchmark scores of 1618 and 2900 on the popular Geekbench performance tool, which means it’s about as powerful as an 11-inch MacBook Air from 2012. I don’t know about you, but given the choice, I would much rather browse the web on a 2012 MacBook Air than my iPhone. The only reason I mostly use my phone is that it’s more convenient, most of the time. But otherwise, there’s just no contest; Safari on a MacBook is simply better at rendering the web than on an iPhone of roughly equivalent computing power.

@reckless With my mid-2011 11″, I find it’s decent enough for netbook with both (eight to nine tabs in Chrome before slowdown, I think)

— Colin Szechy (@ColinSzechy) July 15, 2015

You can go back even farther: I pulled my ancient 2007 MacBook Pro (Geekbench: 1200 / 2100) off the shelf and made no changes save installing the latest version of Chrome onto whatever 2010 mess of OS X 10.6.3 I’d left on it, and overall web page loading times and perceived speed were still faster than my iPhone. You can dive deeply into the differences in processor architecture and the MacBook’s 3GB of RAM to the iPhone’s 1GB to talk your way around it, but c’mon: this computer came out alongside the first-ever iPhone. It predates The Verge itself by four years. It has a hard drive with smoker’s cough and a fan that sounds like it’s about to launch into orbit.

This is embarrassing.

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Let’s look at this problem from a totally different angle. Windows 10 is coming out at the end of the month, and Microsoft is mounting a huge campaign to give it away for free to lots of people running older versions. This is unprecedented for Microsoft, which usually makes money selling new software, but the company’s taking the hit in order to rapidly expand the installed base of Windows 10. Why? Because Windows 10 apps run on a variety of devices including phones, and Microsoft is hoping that developers will flock to a big new market for apps on Windows 10 desktops, thus bringing tons of new apps to Windows Phone.

This will almost certainly fail.

Apps are important on phones because the web experience is dismal

What developer is going to spend the time writing a dedicated app for Windows PCs in the faint hope that Microsoft will figure out phones, when they can just write a great web app and cover both Windows and Mac users? What insane person has the courage to install, say, an American Airlines app on their Windows PC? 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. The first person to fight this truth was Steve Jobs, who tried to push developers toward web apps on the iPhone before opening the platform to native app development; Gruber bluntly called Jobs’ strategy “a shit sandwich.”

Apps have become nearly irrelevant on desktops because the web experience is close to perfect, while apps are vitally important on phones because the web experience is dismal. Windows 10 looks like it’s going to be a big step forward for Microsoft, but it won’t be able to bridge that gap. I’m not sure anything can.

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Now, I happen to work a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks. Our video player is annoying. (I swear a better one is coming, for real this time.) We could do a lot of things to make our site load faster, and we’re doing them. We’re also launch partners with Apple News, and will eventually deliver Facebook Instant Articles. We have to do all these things; the reality of the broken mobile web is the reality in which we live.

If Apple are throttling back on web platform work in Safari, I wish they’d allow other browsers on iOS so someone else can have a go

— Jake Archibald (@jaffathecake) June 22, 2015

But we can’t fix the performance of Mobile Safari. Apple totally forbids other companies from developing alternative web rendering engines for the iPhone, so there’s no competition for better performance, and no incentive for Apple to invest heavily in Safari development. In many ways, Safari is the new Internet Explorer. Things are mildly more open on Android, but not much — and Google has Mozilla in some sort of hypnotic foundation-grant-and-search-revenue trance anyway, so it’s not clear where the competition would come from.

That’s a recipe for stagnation, and stagnation is what we have. It’s leading powerful players like Apple and Facebook to create ersatz copies of the web inside their walled gardens, when what we really need is a more powerful, more robust web.

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