Mobile Browsers – The Next Generation
I switched from iOS to Android last year and this year I managed to add a decent phone to my smartphone collection. So I diligently set about installing all the browsers for my sparkly new Samsung Galaxy Nexus and was duly surprised by the number of them out there. Some may say that this is not necessarily a good thing as now you have more testing to do. But this is not the desktop and thanks to the opportunity of a clean start, most mobile browsers render pages consistently and implement most features that you’d expect to see in a modern browser in the same way.
These are shifting sands and as we move towards mobile becoming the prominent browsing platform we are seeing significant developments come thick and fast. Using stats from statcounter.com as a guide (and remember there are lies, damned lies and statistics) and scores from HTML5Test.com (again just an indicator) I have tried to get a feel for what’s going on.
So let’s look at the current most popular mobile browsers first:
The default Android browser represents around 25% of mobile browsers used. Older versions of the Android browser are sadly a little lacking when it comes to HTML5 support. Also there are issues when it comes to CSS transforms and transitions. These problems are compounded by the fact that, as with iOS and Mobile Safari, the browser has deep roots in the underlying OS and so is usually only upgraded when the OS is updated.
Mobile Safari, default on iOS devices (iPhone,iPod and iPad) generally provides better HTML5 support, however there are also some show-stoppers when it comes to writing more comprehensive apps such as games. One is that it only allows one piece of media to be played at any one time. Also video on iPod/iPhone cannot be embedded. Both the Android browser and Mobile Safari lack WebGL support. Although interestingly iOS supports WebGL based advertisements so perhaps support is just around the corner. In any case the version of Safari that ships with iOS6 supports the new Web Audio API and improve App Cache limits among other slated improvements.
Between them, the Android browser, Mobile Safari and Opera Mini account for around 70% of all mobile browsers and they each have significant issues. Luckily, things are set to change as a new generation of modern browsers enter the market. Let’s take a look at them.
Mobile Firefox seems to be coming along leaps and bounds in recent months. It will be difficult for Firefox to overtake default installed browsers on Android and iOS, but if Mozilla’s gamble to make Firefox OS a default operating system on low-end smart-phones pays off, this could be a very significant browser indeed.
We touched on Opera Mini’s short-comings but Opera Mobile is a very capable browser with great HTML5 support. However Opera will undoubtedly suffer from not having a platform in which to create a default install, but perhaps they can somehow manage convert the substantial number of Mini users to Mobile. Of course there is the crazy, yet somewhat plausible situation, where Facebook buys Opera. This could have obvious ramifications for Opera’s popularity. Although rumours that Facebook are going to make a ‘Facebook phone’ have recently been denied.
Internet Explorer looks likely to be another mobile browser that is tied to its underlying OS and although the version that ships with Windows 7.5 has very poor HTML5 support, the up and coming Windows 8 version looks to be much better.
Representing around 10% of mobile browser usage, Nokia is a bit of a dark horse and since they actually run various browsers — depending on OS and device — also a little bit difficult to fathom. That said, both the Meego browser (Nokia N9 and N950) and Nokia Belle FP 1 (Nokia 603, 700 and 701) ship with good HTML5 support. Again as with Opera statcounter.com doesn’t differentiate between the various Nokia browsers.
Blackberry browsers have traditionally been fairly well-featured, at least since version 6, and Blackberry 10 promises to be even better. In fact, according to HTML5Test, it will rank second to Dolphin‘s new browser. Who?
New Kids on the Block
If you’re like me, you probably hadn’t heard of browsers such as Dolphin, UCBrowser and NetFront until relatively recently, but these browsers account for nearly 13% of usage. UCBrowser accounts for around 7.5% alone and this is probably explained by its popularity in China. Dolphin is another proprietary browser that scores well in HTML5 tests and NetFront is an embeddable browser that can be found on devices such as TVs, set-top boxes and TVs, as well as phones. All of these browsers tend be WebKit based and so should at least render web pages similarly. (Webkit is the open-sourced rendering engine used by Safari and Chrome). I mention a few but there are others such as Boat, Skyfire, Angel Browser and Maxathon, but these are relatively seldom used.
A Note on Stats and Your Audience
While we can draw many conclusions from general usage stats it’s useful to figure out what countries the potential audience for your app are likely to be and what platforms they might use. Peter-Paul Koch provides some regional breakdowns and a little insight into the mobile market share. He uses statcounter.com as a source and you can do this yourself directly at gs.statcounter.com. It would be useful to gather stats on mobile usage from other sources, as well. Wikipedia points to a few other sources.
So what can we derive from all this? Well, it looks like things are about to change for web app developers as Chrome suplants the default Android browser and iOS6 brings with it improvements to Safari. It looks like we can expect continued and improving support from Blackberry, Microsoft and Nokia and, of course, the very capable Firefox mobile hoping to take a foot-hold as Firefox OS rolls out next year. All of this means that the situation for web app developers is drastically improving and, if we are skating to where the puck will be, we should get coding.
Note: I tweeted @statcountergs about Opera and Nokia break-downs they replied:
So here’s hope for the availability of more detailed stats in the near future.
This blog post has been written by Mark Boas