Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, macOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

The mobile web

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There has been a huge amount of talk over the past couple of weeks about mobile browsers mainly due to two announcements at WWDC; Content Blockers in Safari and Apple News. This has led to discussion of mobile ads as it has been discovered there are huge speed boosts to be made when certain elements are blocked (for example, the iMore site weighs 14MB for something that is essentially plaintext). The thing that got me was when Niley Patel of The Verge created an article called “The mobile web sucks” whilst failing to notice the irony that the article he created takes 30s to load, and fetches 9.5MB across 263 HTTP requests. The bit that irritated me though was this passage:

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.

I’m not 100% sure on Facebook Instant Articles but Apple News is basically just an RSS reader. Sure you can use some custom syntax to make things look slightly nicer but they have “over a million topics” because they’ve basically scraped all the big RSS feeds and packaged it nicely. This brings me to the one thing I probably agree with Niley on1, the mobile web does suck. The difference is that I don’t ever use it…

On mobile, apps have completely replaced the web for me. Safari isn’t on my first home screen, let alone my dock; it’s buried in a folder with Stocks, Tips, and other undeletable2 Apple apps. The majority of browsing I do on my phone is either my RSS feeds or Twitter; if I want to read a link, they usually open in their own browser and I usually regret it. Mobile web sites are generally horrible things that are slow to load and have ridiculous interfaces. There are some sites that take longer to load on 4G than the equivelant WAP3 website used to on GPRS! Even the option to choose to render the desktop version often doesn’t work due to the horrible way in which most companies detect you are using a mobile browser. Due to this, I typically save websites I want to read to my Pinboard and read them later on my iMac or use the “readability” feature in Safari.

I love RSS feeds. I subscribe to around 130 websites4 and I get every article fast, cached for offline usage, rendered in the same font, and without any JavaScript crap. I simply don’t understand people that don’t use RSS. Twitter is no match; you have to scroll through a ton of stuff you aren’t interested in to find links which you then have to click and wait for your browser to render. RSS keeps everything uniform and consistent and ensures I don’t miss anything. That is essentially what Apple News is trying to do (albeit with a discovery angle and a bit more design) and it seems like a perfectly good idea to me but I doubt it’ll make me switch from Reeder and FeedBin, my current setup.

The only minor problem I have with RSS is sites (like The Verge5) who only give you a paragraph of the text before making you click through to the site so they get your eyeballs on their ads and which always leads to clickbait headlines and paragraphs ending in a manufactured cliffhanger6. Fortunately there aren’t many sites that do that but Apple News is not going to fix it; they have provision for this with a “Read Full Story” link they embed that opens up the rest of the page within an internal browser. There are also sites which have ads as content (i.e. Daring Fireball) but those work well as they can be skimmed over quickly if they are of no interest and they don’t track you, take over your screen, or do any of the other things that browser ads do.

So whilst everybody is up in arms about mobile browsers using up their battery and CPU, tracking their usage across the web, and having the unwinnable argument over whether to block ads or not7, I’ll be sat reading that debate in my JavaScript-free, fast, RSS reader. I’ll likely end up installing some form of content blocker when iOS 9 is released for the few times that I do end up using the browser, but those times are thankfully becoming fewer and fewer on mobile.

  1. I have an instant dislike to him after his Apple Watch review (which has a horrible, horrible website) in which he said the notifications made him ruder in conversation (as he constantly looked at his watch rather than ignoring it - that just makes him a jerk, not the watch) and claimed he felt “ridiculous wearing the Milanese Loop” yet is happy to wear a massive chunky punk bracelet↩︎

  2. I’m still surprised this hasn’t been remedied. In iOS 3 you could enable the Nike Running app by a toggle in settings (as the 3GS had the Bluetooth chip to talk to the shoe tracker) so I don’t see an issue why the built-in apps couldn’t be turned off in a similar way from settings. ↩︎

  3. Who remembers WAP? Fun times. ↩︎

  4. A mixture of tech, politics, development, LEGO, video game, and Disney blogs. Everything published in the areas I care about all in one place. ↩︎

  5. Turns out that The Verge does offer a full RSS feed after all! A shame that have started truncating theirs… ↩︎

  6. After clicking a few of them, you realise the site is terrible and unsubscribe from it. Problem solved. ↩︎

  7. The argument is either “if you block ads you are getting something for free and going to put the publisher out of business” or “you shouldn’t be using up my battery and CPU with this privacy invading advertising”. You can’t win either way. I block ads personally but I’ll do a post soon about how I do it on my iMac. ↩︎

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