iphone

Mobile Sites Proliferate by Category

Posted by Mike Brittain on April 21, 2010
Mobile / Comments Off

An article on RWW about mobile apps and browser-based sites highlights the different concentrations in categories between native apps and mobile sites.  Native apps are heavily weighted toward games and entertainment.  Mobile web sites are heavily weighted toward shopping and social categories:

… 19% of the mobile sites measured were Shopping & Services sites; compared to 3.6% in the same category in the App Store. Content in the ‘Social’ category also has a higher chance of being a browser-based mobile site, rather than an app (12.9% to 1.7%).

Additionally, Taptu estimates that mobile site growth far outpaces the growth of native apps on any other platform, including the iPhone and App Store.

My position for a long while has been that mobile sites have much better reach due to the ability to access them from any mobile device with a decent browser, without having to download an app.  This makes cross-platform development much easier for existing web teams.  As more mobile platforms take up the WebKit rendering engine, including this week’s report that BlackBerry 6.0 will include a touch browser backed by WebKit, the baseline for development across the myriad of mobile devices is actually much better than what we had with the first web browsers in the late ’90s.

Still, the perception by consumers that apps are hip, as well as aggressive app-centric marketing by carriers, sets a higher barrier for consumers to understand the wealth of mobile sites available to them on their existing handsets.  Visibility is still an issue here.

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What I Want in a Tablet

Posted by Mike Brittain on February 10, 2010
Gadgets / 3 Comments

For the last week I have been laid up in bed and on the couch while recovering from ACL reconstructive surgery. I would estimate that I’ve been using my iPhone an average of 7 hours a day for online tasks:

– Reading articles on newspaper sites
– Reading RSS subscriptions (in Reeder)
– Posting links to Twitter and Delicious
– Reading and writing on Twitter
– Reading and writing emails
– Drafting blog posts in WordPress and Tumblr (this post is, in fact, being written on the WordPress app)
– Writing in online forums and posting bug reports for apps
– Instant Messaging (AIM)
– Searching for web content on Google and Wikipedia
– Taking photos and posting to Flickr
– Posting events on my calendar
– Checking the weather
– Ordering dinner (Seamlessweb)
– Ordering groceries (FreshDirect)
– Setting timers (post-surgery medication and exercise schedules)
– Reading and writing messages to friends on Facebook
– Trying out new native apps and web apps

I feel kind of like an expert at ingesting and creating content on a “tablet” computer. An iPhone truly is a mini-tablet.

Knowing that the iPad release is just around the corner, I’m somewhat upset that I don’t have one because a lot of this would be a lot easier on a larger device. Additionally, the suggestive video of a Chrome OS tablet is also intruiging. While a number of the tasks I listed above are being done within iPhone apps, I believe that nearly all of them could be done from web applications.

So here are some thoughts about the experience of doing all of this on an iPhone and what I’d like to see (or not see) in an iPad.

1. Web browsing. I would characterize web browsing on the iPhone as very good. You can san whole pages and zoom in on portions you care about. I can get to about 85% of what I’m interested in right from Safari.

There are some downsides.

Some sites don’t scale well when zooming. The text is just too small when the column is spread full width, either in portrait or landscape. My workaround is to send these pages to Instapaper and allow that app to reformat the text for easier reading.

Sites that use Ajax and fancy UI designed for desktop browsing don’t always translate well in Mobile Safari. The touch interface and the select/copy tools on the iPhone often get triggered inappropriately when using some of these interfaces.

Even with zooming, text is often too small. Horizontal scrolling back and forth to read an article is downright annoying.

Most of what I do on my phone is done in the browser, so I look forward to a larger display that will make it easier to read whole pages at a time without zooming in and out.

2. Missing Flash Content. “I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob.” Sure, it’s kind of annoying that a lot of articles I’m reading embed a video player written in Flash. It’s actually a little frustrating to me that a core use of Flash for so many sites is simply to deliver videos. The same uploaders, transcoders, storage services, and video players have been written by so many sites. It really is time for video playback directly in the browser. So I think the web is at a growing pain. It may suck for a short while as so many Flash-based videos will be inaccessible to iPhones and iPads, but the prototype sites from YouTube and Vimeo show promise of in-browser video playback for HTML5.

I’ll admit there are still some areas, especially gaming, where Flash is a solid platform. As for so called Rich Internet Applications, I think most developers would agree that Ajax toolsets make these more capable directly in the browser today.

3. Battery Life. Battery life on the iPhone has always been pretty bad. If you have an iPhone, then you’ve trained yourself to recharge your phone every morning or evening. It’s simply a habit. When you’re using your phone for 7 hours a day, then you’re charging it a few times a day. A battery life at least three times as long as this phone would be appropriate.

4. Watching Video. There are probably a lot of conference presentations I would consider watching from my iPhone which I’m not doing now. I think this relates most directly to the battery life issue. My guess is that many (but not all) are already available for viewing on the YouTube app for the iPhone.

5. Multi-tasking. Gotta have it. One thing I’ll say that I like about iPhone apps is that they are fullscreen and keep your focus. It would be nice in a larger display to be able to run two apps side by side, but I don’t know that I want user-sizable windows.

What I do miss is having an IM client running in the background so I can be reached by people I chat with while working.

6. Webcam or Camera. I could care less about both of these. I can’t see aiming a device the size of a textbook at someone to take a picture. And as for the webcam, I agree it would be convenient, but picture the following case. You are relaxing in your favorite easy chair reading the news on your tablet which is in your hands but resting on your legs. You get invited to a video chat and accept. The way I see it, from the position you are sitting the webcam on your tablet will have a great shot straight up your nostrils. This is not the image that sells video conferencing on tablet devices.

7. Virtual Keyboard. I tend to think the iPhone keyboard is pretty good and easy to adjust to. I’ve written this entire post from my phone, and it likely has a few spelling mistakes to prove it.

An improvement for a larger device would be to have a more functional keyboard with command/alt/option keys. This would make SSH clients more approachable on a tablet device.

8. Functioning “File” Form Controls. One thing I hate on the iPhone is signing up for some new online app ad not being able to do something simple like uploading an avatar. Would be great to see file fields in Mobile Safari that could pull from files stored by various apps (camera roll photos, documents, etc.)

Decision time.

I’m very excited about tablet computers and expect that unless there is a good looking product announced prior to the ipad release, I’m 90% certain I’ll buy one.

There are still some open questions about iPad functionality that may be addressed prior to it’s release. How exactly do you get files in and out of it -all via iTunes sync? Will there be background apps in the next iPhone OS and will that roll out onto the iPad immediately?

But even if the product is not perfect out of the gate, Apple has already demonstrated a successful model of revising and deploying updates. Like the iPhone, the iPad is a product that will continually improve while you own it.

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Reaction to PPK’s “The iPhone obsession”

Posted by Mike Brittain on February 08, 2010
Mobile / Comments Off

PPK wrote a thought provoking post drawing a parallel between iPhone-specific mobile development and IE6-specific development we saw begin a decade ago and is still, somewhat surprisingly, biting us in the ass.  It’s an important warning to heed, but I think he misses some critical points about mobile web usage trends and dwells too much on a snapshot of current statistics about mobile handset market share.

Why are developers obsessed with the iPhone?

Let’s not mince words.  Mobile web browsing has traditionally been a horrible experience.  I’ve had a couple of what seemed like great smartphones (a BlackBerry 8700 and a Palm Treo 550).  They made me feel like I could use the web, and were better than nothing, but they were still a terrible experience when compared with today’s mobile web.  To deal with the fact that these handsets couldn’t consume all of the image formats, plugins, or even standard HTML produced for the web, the browsers either munged their rendering or made use of proxies that would reformat a web site’s HTML content to be more WAP-ready.  Transfer speeds were also doggedly slow.  It made much of the web accessible, but was a rough ride.

It’s not even worth talking about the people who were making mobile-friendly sites three years ago.  It’s not to say they didn’t exist, but the number of sites customized for mobile browsers at that point is negligible.

The iPhone coming to market changed the game.  Why?  Because Mobile Safari allowed users to see real web sites and not dumbed down version of web pages (well, except for Flash).  Additionally, AT&T contracts for iPhones require data plans.  Most smartphones on the market can be purchased with a contract that doesn’t include web data usage.   I just priced out BlackBerry Tour and Droid Eris (HTC) phones on Verizon and their base package includes no data usage.  You pay an additional $1.99/MB for data transfer.  BlackBerry handsets are huge in the U.S., but they’re simply not for web usage, they’re purchase primarily for email and texting.  (I believe this will change, but RIM needs to massively overhaul their browser architecture to catch up to the current state of mobile browsers being released on other phones.)

The graph below demonstrates the effect of the iPhone on mobile web usage (global).  Click for full size.

Source: Quantcast 2009 Mobile Web Trends Report

I am not advocating that we only design for the iPhone.  Newer mobile operating systems are incorporating WebKit into their default offerings.  Even though the versions of WebKit released on iPhone, Android, Symbian, Palm, etc. differ, they are all starting miles ahead of the mobile browsers from two or three years ago.  If PPK is concerned about developers favoring a technology (as they did IE6), should we be concerned about a dominance of WebKit and an ignorance of everything else?

Trends for mobile web usage

Another problem I have with the article is the statistics that were chosen.  There is too much focus on mobile handset/OS market share and not on mobile web usage.  All of the statistics that PPK chose to show are a snapshot of the current market.  If a web developer took this sort of approach to their web development strategy, they may have concluded in April 2009 that “Internet Explorer 8 only has 3.6% market share, let’s not worry too much about it.” (Source: Net Applications)

Mobile handset/OS market share has no correlation to mobile web usage.  Looking at the stats presented in PPK’s post, Symbian commands 45% of the smartphone market share (I’m fairly sure this is global market share, he made a point of not allowing developers to focus on the U.S. alone).  Contrast that with Quantcast’s 2009 Mobile Web Usage Report which shows that Symbian makes up just over 3% of global mobile web usage (all handsets included).

This graph, again from Quantcast’s 2009 report, demonstrates the mobile web market share (global) of the top handset operating systems. Click to enlarge.

Source: Quantcast 2009 Mobile Web Trends Report

Bottom line: The mobile web is tiny

There’s one more point I want to make, also supported by Quantcast’s report.  Statistics on mobile phone usage and mobile web penetration by market can get pretty heady.  It’s exciting to see all of this growth in mobile.  But the fact is that despite all of the people in the world walking around with their mobile phones, they’re not yet consuming very much of the web.  According to Quantcast, by the end of 2009 mobile web usage accounts for just 0.95% of total web usage worldwide.

Much respect

To be clear, my intention is not to bash PPK. His research, code samples, and compatibility tables are invaluable to the web development community.  I know I’ve used them countless times.  Many thanks!

I also agree with his overall rant, which is that building iPhone-specific sites is a dumb approach.  I hope to write more on that soon.

Additional resources and data

I’ve put a lot of emphasis on numbers I found in a Quantcast report.  Their findings are based on a pixel-based measurement of web usage and report only from sites where their instrumentation is deployed. Concerns I have are whether their measurements are effective on all mobile browsers (including those using transcoding proxies), and whether their measurements would be skewed by higher deployment of their pixels on sites in one global region over others.  It seems, however, that most of the best known operating systems are represented.

I didn’t call out any of the numbers from the AdMob report (listed below) because I don’t believe an ad serving network would have solid coverage of the mobile web, especially not on a global scale.

Below are some additional resources worth reviewing which I read while researching these trends.

Mobile Metrics Report, Dec 2009 – AdMob

State of the Mobile Web, Sept 2009 – Opera

The Mobile Internet Report, Dec 2009 – Morgan Stanley

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Mobile Sites Outpace Native Apps… But What About Web Apps?

Posted by Mike Brittain on February 05, 2010
Mobile / Comments Off

I was excited to read this article about mobile web sites growing faster than native apps, a trend I believe will continue in the future.

Taptu estimates that there are 326,000 Mobile Touch Web sites worldwide, which they say compares to 148,000 iPhone apps in the App Store and 24,000 apps in the Android market. Taptu expects the browser-based mobile web market to grow much faster than the app market.

I’m excited about browser-based apps and the potential of HTML5 as a platform for cross-platform app development.  It’s too bad there’s not a distinction in these numbers between web applications and content sites that simply have layouts customized for display on mobile devices.

Mobile-Friendly, Web Apps, and Native Apps

When the iPhone was launched, Safari became the first mobile browser to really represent web sites as you would see them on a desktop browser.  Before then, surfing from your phone’s browser was a clunky experience with unsupported HTML and CSS features, and web proxies that would reformat or strip out content deemed unfriendly for the mobile browser.  On rare occasions, you might stumble into a site that would push your phone’s browser to a version of the site formatted specifically for display on a small screen.  Today, the term “web app” gets confused with “mobile-friendly” web sites.  I say they are wholly different products.

Native apps are touted for their advantages over web-based apps, which include: 1. better exposure to hardware- or platform-specific APIs, 2. potential for instant revenue streams (payment via app stores), and 3. ability to operate in an offline capacity.

It’s difficult to argue against native apps and games that tie into platform-specific APIs unavailable to web apps.  However, there are plenty of services available for making payments to web sites, but developers need to keep in mind their competition in native apps.  You can’t charge $5/month for access to your web app when a similar app sells for a one-time $0.99 fee through an app store.  Finally, the point of offline access is fairly ironic given that so many native apps are simply wrappers for network APIs and cannot run without a network connection.

So when I talk about web apps, I don’t just mean a mobile-friendly web site.  Rather, I’m talking about the potential to build rich applications that can run in a browser.  Using HTML5 capabilities like offline data storage and object caches, web apps can mimic many of the same features built in native apps but have the ability to reach across platforms and devices.

My own definition of web app an application that:

  1. Is written with core web technologies and runs in a browser,
  2. Provides more utility than simply reading pages of content,
  3. Is responsive to user interaction and gives the same impression that an installed app gives, and
  4. Is device and platform independent, indeed it should be irrelevant whether it is displayed on a mobile phone, a desktop computer, or any other device.

The Web App Findability Problem

Platform-specific app stores have risen up as clearing houses for apps. Users are being conditioned that the term “app” means something you download and install on your phone.  App stores are backed by big marketing dollars and ad campaigns because they provide a competitive advantage for their platform and create new revenue streams.  Web apps, on the other hand, provide neither.

There are online directories of web apps to solve this problem, but these don’t have nearly the visibility or marketing of today’s app stores.  It would be difficult for consumers to even consider web apps when they have a nice, easy shortcut to their platform’s app store built right into their phone. Even Apple, who claimed at the release of the first iPhone that web applications were enough, do not provide a means for finding web apps from their phone.  Indeed, their own web app directory doesn’t render in a mobile-friendly format.

Visibility is a key barrier for web apps.

Where Will Web Apps Get Their Exposure?

I’ve thought over a few possibilities for building the web app market, which are outlined here.

First, app stores could expand their listings to include web apps. There are already plenty of free apps in the stores.  Web apps would not create any new low price points.  I see business concerns with this direction, though.  App stores have their own services to charge for paid apps at the point of purchase.  A web app is never downloaded, so it is difficult to charge a toll for access.  Furthermore, web apps might require subscriptions or usage fees, but would be open to choose from a variety of payment gateways.  Owners of app stores would likely see this as losing out.

Search engines could provide niche listings for web applications in the same manner that news, shopping and image search reasults are handled by Google.  Search engines are supposed to provide unbiased rankings and could probably fit an app directory well.

The last idea would be to identify web applications using a new “.app” top-level domain, similar to the .mobi TLD used for mobile compatible sites.  The term “app” has already become part of the vernacular and its use as a TLD could easily identify a URL as a pointer to an application (desktop or mobile) as opposed to just mobile-friendly web pages.

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A Web Without Flash?

Posted by Mike Brittain on January 31, 2010
WWW / 1 Comment

Scoble has an interesting post asking Can Flash Be Saved? His central point is that developers will make use of whatever technologies that are widely available to their users which, of course, makes sense.  He draws an analogy between the growth of the iPhone OS, which does not include Flash, and Firefox, which does not include Microsoft-centric technologies like ActiveX.  Within the first years that Firefox began to steal share from Internet Explorer in the consumer market, developers changed the manner that they coded their sites by embracing Web Standards.

The interesting thing about that change was that Firefox’s growth was fairly slow outside of the developer community.  Many developers loved Firefox, but it took a few years for the general public to get hip to the browser.  I would have to say that the iPhone has far higher brand recognition and uptake.  You could attribute this to Apple’s strong marketing machine.

Mobile web browsing is still a small market compared to desktop browsers.  It’s a tiny, but growing market that can’t be ignored.  I believe that in just a few years mobile Internet services (including networked apps)  will be more important than the desktop Internet for communication, entertainment, and consuming information.  Devices like the iPhone and iPad are driving this forward.  Android is growing and finally seeing a wider number of devices offering Google’s mobile OS.  BlackBerry is a widely used platform, but it doesn’t contribute much to mobile web usage (yet).

If these (iPhone and Android) operating systems become the leading platforms in the mobile space, developers will build sites and apps based on the technologies available across them, namely HTML5 support that is part of the WebKit engine.  If Flash continues to be blockaded from the iPhone OS, developers will certainly look to other technologies to replace it.

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Leaner iPhone Interfaces with CSS Gradients

Posted by Mike Brittain on July 05, 2009
Mobile / Comments Off

I started playing around with Safari’s CSS gradients yesterday to see whether they would be usable on One tsp.’s mobile interface.  Looks like there has been support in WebKit for about a year now, but I don’t know specifics about how that translates to versions of Safari and other browsers built on top of WebKit.

The demos seemed to work for me in Safari 4 and in the latest version of mobile Safari built into the iPhone 3.0 OS.  I tested the 2.0 OS and it did not support gradients. I don’t know what support the Palm Pre browser has available.

This looked good enough for me, through.  Much of the interface for One tsp. is already taking advantage of a few CSS extensions with varying support.  The interface looks its best on modern browsers (IE excluded) but is still totally usable everywhere else.

So what’s the difference?

I’ve only replaced one gradient background so far, but I’m stunned.  By defining the gradient in CSS, I’ve added just 92 bytes to my style sheet.  This allowed me to remove the background-image rule I had in place to load an image file, which was 50 bytes.  The image file that is no longer needed was pretty small (635 bytes) but also meant another external request that needed to be made.  When we’re talking about a mobile device, extra requests can have a high latency — worse than what we typically think of for the web.

These are pretty small numbers, I’ll admit.  But assuming I have six gradients defined per page, the net savings would be trading around 4 KB and six additional requests for about 260 bytes and no additional requests.  That’s pretty cool.

Faster Mobile Interfaces

Successful mobile web applications need to be super fast. Users trading a native app for a web app will expect it to be responsive. Speed can be improved through faster server responses, low mobile network latency (which we have little control over), fewer and smaller requests to the server, and cacheability on as much content as possible.

Rounded corners and background gradients are two frequently used interface styles that can now be achieved directly in the browser using CSS, eliminating the need for many additional image requests.

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How to Improve JavaScript Latency in Mobile Browsers

Posted by Mike Brittain on January 20, 2009
Mobile / 2 Comments

Mobile browsers are really coming along.  Mobile Safari is built on top of WebKit and has just as much capability as the desktop version.  Same with Android’s browser.  Blackberry’s browser, I understand, has improved tremendously over previous versions.  The new offering from Palm centers application development around web technologies HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

As more applications and data grow to live in the cloud, then access to them via a browser must be easy and fast, which is often not the case with data on mobile devices.  A web site can take many seconds to several minutes to load all of the content required.  And at the heart of many sites these days lie some common elements — JavaScript libraries.

Personally, I have avoided heavy-weight libraries for mobile application development, because I know that they are a burden to the end-user.  This is less often the case for desktop users, who typically have broadband connections at home or at work.  So what do we do to improve this situation?

I propose that the mobile browser makers (or OS makers, in most cases) embed standard versions of common JavaScript libraries within their browsers.  Google already makes a number of these available as a hosted solution for web application developers: jQuery, YUI, Prototype, script.aculo.us, etc.  Other players, particularly in the CDN space, could also become involved in hosting these frameworks.  Nearly half of the libraries that Google hosts are larger than the 25 KB cache limit in mobile Safari (for example).  By embedding a handful of these libraries, mobile browsers could speed up some of the overhead of mobile applications that rely on Ajax or heavy DOM manipulation.

How would you do this?  Likely by inspecting HTTP requests by URL.  Google’s hosted libraries include version numbers, which allows developers to peg their work to a specific version, not having to worry about quirks in future versions that could upset their apps.  When an application makes use of one of these embedded libraries, the browser can simply execute the JavaScript library without having to make an external request.  If the application uses a newer version that is not embedded in the browser, the HTTP request would proceed as normal.  End users would get a slower experience than with an embedded framework, but that experience would be no worse than we have now.

I’m interested in hearing others’ thoughts about this idea.

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David Lee Roth Ringtones

Posted by Mike Brittain on January 16, 2009
Misc / Comments Off

Can you spell, “awesome”?

So we’ve been playing around with the David Lee Roth Soundboard all week, and honestly, it might be one of the funniest things I’ve seen in the last few years.  I figured the best way to continue enjoying Diamond Dave’s amazing vocals after this week is out would be to take these on my phone… yup, as ringtones.  So, for your enjoyment, the links below are for m4r (iPhone ringtone) and mp3 files.  These ringtones all come from the vocal track for Van Halen’s Runnin’ with the Devil.

Download or Play Ringtones

Aahhaaaaahhhaaa yeeeaah whoohooooo ooo ooo m4r mp3
Aahaaahh yeah yeeaaaaah yeaaah yeah m4r mp3
Ooh god, oh god I’m running aaahhhh yeah m4r mp3
Oooooooaaaahh yes m4r mp3
Yes I aaaamm m4r mp3

Let’s face it… these are ridiculous.

How to use

For iPhone users, you should be able to add these to your phone by saving the m4r files, then importing into iTunes: 1. open iTunes, 2. select File > Add to Library…, 3. select the files from wherever you saved them.  Connect your iPhone and check the “ringtones” tab to make sure you are syncing ringtones from your library to your phone.

If you have something else, you might be able to use the mp3 files for ringtones, but don’t ask me how. :)

By the way, thanks to Chad for giving me a heads up on how easy it is to make these for iPhones, and “davak” for the tech recipe with step by step instructions.

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Syncing Google Calendar and Apple iCal

Posted by Mike Brittain on December 05, 2008
Apple, Google / 3 Comments

At long last, there is CalDAV support in Google Calendar so that it can properly sync with Apple’s iCal.  This has taken so long that I’ve pretty much moved completely into using Google Calendar 100%, and don’t even bother opening iCal.  In the end, that’s what I believe Google wants — total reliance on web-based apps.

In any case, the announcement was made a few days ago on Google’s Mac Blog.  There is a small app that Google is distributing for making the setup process super easy.  I’m going to give it a shot and see whether this will get me using iCal again.  It certainly would be nice to have this calendar available on my iPhone, especially when I’m somewhere that Google Calendar won’t load due to lack of network connectivity (which seems to happen pretty often for me).

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Manage Amazon Web Services on Your iPhone

Posted by Mike Brittain on October 23, 2008
Cloud Computing / Comments Off

Ylastic is putting a management interface for AWS on the iPhone.  Looks pretty cool.

I am familiar with their name, but don’t have any experience with their product.  I sort of wish these sorts of tools could be open sourced (and there are some) so that I could run the management service on my own servers and not hand over my AWS keys.  Like I said, I don’t have experience with their product, so maybe I’m making an assumption there.

As I’ve said earlier about AWS, it’s an amazing service, but is very much like a raw material.  It’s like having someone hand you the keys to a datacenter, and you don’t even know how to turn on the lights.  Ylastic fits into the category of management vendors for AWS, and I think that Amazon’s ultimate success will depend on management vendors who extend the web services to the layperson.

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