« | Home | »

A response to Neil McAllister on the Mobile Web

By Noah | October 25, 2009

Last week, Neil McAllister of InfoWorld wrote an article titled The Sad State of the Mobile Web Gets Even Sadder. The community badly needs careful and balanced analysis of the mobile Web, of the various platform-specific SDKs (such as the iPhone and Android SDKs), and especially of which models are likely to be good for what.  Unfortunately, McAllister’s analysis is flawed in a number of important ways.

First of all McAllister’s article references Peter-Paul Koch’s Webkit Comparison Table, along with PPK’s claim that there is no “WebKit on Mobile”.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t point out that some people like Alex Russel have dug deeper and have found that the facts don’t support PPK’s conclusions as strongly as one might think.  Yes, if you include lots of older devices, there’s quite a divergence in Webkit deployments, but what PPK and Neil McAllister don’t say is that compatibility is much better on devices that ship recent versions, it’s especially good for core features, and it’s improving all the time.

McAllister also implies that the mobile Web is in trouble because “On my BlackBerry, JavaScript performance is abysmal”.  Using that argument, I can prove that Windows will never be successful, because I could in the early days show you PC’s that ran it with abysmal performance.  The potential of technologies like Javascript needs to be evaluated using the best implementations you can find; that shows what’s possible.  McAllister does go on to say:  “And even when a handset vendor does improve JavaScript performance, as Apple did with iPhone OS 3.0, it’s a relative increase.”  I presume the implication here is that the improvement is small;  I don’t know what the increment was in recent iPhone releases, but certainly the increases in JavaScript performance in desktop browsers have been very significant in recent years.  Anyone who’s used Safari 4 or Chrome will have no doubt that Javascript performance in the industry is improving very significantly.

What about Javascript on mobile devices in particular?  McAllister writes: “You’re still dealing with a poky handheld processor (and in Apple’s case, one that developers speculate is too feeble for Flash or Java).”  I’m confused here: the reason that the HTML and Javascript will fail is that ARM processors are too slow to run Java or Flash?  What’s the connection I’m missing?  The fact is that there are some pretty good AJAX sites for mobile, so we know the ARM processors are good enough to run that Javascript.  Try, for example, going to http://mail.google.com using Safari on your iPhone.  Not a usable experience?  It even works offline using HTML 5 local storage (not Gears, on the iPhone).  Also, even if Javascript performance were somehow related to Java performance, I bet the Android folks would like to hear that Java doesn’t run right on ARM processors, since the entire upper level infrastructure of Android, including user applications, is built on just that combination (as optimized using the Dalvik VM).  The signs I see are that phone-grade ARM processors are good enough to run interesting applications written in all of these languages.  For what it’s worth, I also doubt that Apple’s reasons for avoiding Flash have much to do with ARM’s inability to run it.

Unfortunately, articles like this can do real damage. Many people who are not expert in these things are struggling to figure out which mobile application development models are going to be workable. I happen to believe that the mobile Web will, like the desktop embodiment of the Web, grow as disruptive technologies tend to:  from shaky early deployments, to usable if imperfect intermediate releases (where we are now, I’d say), and quite likely over time to the model that dominates.

Why do I think mobile Web will succeed this well?  Because unlike Neil McAllister, I believe that the underlying processors and system technologies are capable of running it.  I also believe there is compelling value in a model that is fully cross-platform, can support zero install operation (you might want to install a mapping application to find a restaurant, but you almost surely don’t want to install the restaurant’s application to just to check a menu or get discount coupons), and that can scale to support installable platform-independent applications (Widgets) and offline operation. Furthermore,  the Web has the unique value of allowing you to link to the over 1 trillion Web pages, without jumping out from some proprietary application container to a Web browser.

Still don’t believe the mobile Web is viable?  Opera reports that over 12 billion Web pages were accessed using Opera Mini in July 2009, and that’s counting only the accesses from that one browser.  Opera Mini is used mainly on smaller feature phones, so surely the total number of Web page hits from mobile devices was many times larger.  It’s not just that the mobile Web will succeed, it is succeeding — on a massive scale.  Are there applications that are better delivered using platform SDK’s?  Absolutely.  Does that imply that the mobile Web isn’t also succeeding?  No way.

Whether I’m right about the likely success of the mobile Web or not, this whole question deserves a much more careful analysis than McAllister’s article provides. Unfortunately, there will be many people who read it and jump to the conclusion that the mobile Web is failing.  That’s a shame.


P.S.  This is a rework of a comment that I posted on Slashdot shortly after /. posted a reference to Neil’s article.

Topics: Web, Internet, Computing | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “A response to Neil McAllister on the Mobile Web”

  1. Neil McAllister Says:
    February 18th, 2010 at 6:13 PM

    Hi Noah,

    I just happened to stumble on your comments about my article by accident. I always encourage discussion about my articles in all forms, but in this case I’m a little dismayed, because you mostly seem to be responding to the title: “The sad state of mobile development gets even sadder.”

    There’s just one thing you should know about that: I don’t write the headlines or the blurbs (called “decks”) for my articles. I always suggest a title, but my editor rewrites them as he sees fit. And frankly, he and I often disagree on what constitutes a good headline.

    I don’t remember what title I submitted for this one, but based on the filename of the original document, it was probably something like “Mobile Web faces challenges” or “Despite smartphones, mobile Web still disappoints.” My editor wrote his own headline, though — despite the fact that I’m not sure “sad” is the right word to describe the state of mobile development, and I don’t really see anything in the text of my article that suggests I think it’s getting “even sadder.”
    Such is life.


  2. Noah Says:
    February 25th, 2010 at 5:42 PM

    Neil, thank you for taking the trouble to respond. You seem concerned that I might have been responding primarily to the title as opposed to the content of your original article. I hope that wasn’t the case, but I guess readers of my response can judge for themselves.

    As to it being the editors who are writing the titles of your posting: I do know how those things go, and I hope you took no personal offense. Then again, it does raise some questions if Infoworld is posting your writing under headlines with which you are not comfortable. That’s a shame.

    Thank you again for taking the trouble to respond.

Submit a comment:

Please press the submit comment button below to submit your comment for posting. All comments are moderated, so your comment will not appear until it has been reviewed. The blog owner reserves the right to decline to post any comment for any reason. Also, by pressing the submit comment button, you confirm your acceptance of the legal agreement below. Please read it before submitting your comment.

Legal agreement: by pressing the submit comment button you grant to Noah Mendelsohn a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, no-charge, royalty-free, irrevocable copyright license to reproduce, prepare derivative works of, publicly display, publicly perform, sublicense, and distribute your comment contribution and derivative works thereof. Noah Mendelsohn reserves the right to republish such material in any form, though reasonable efforts will be made to retain the attribution to you. You also confirm that you have not knowingly violated copyright or other applicable laws pertaining to material that you have quoted or reproduced in your comment. (Note: if this agreement is not acceptable, an alternative is for you to post your comment on your own blog or other public Web site, and to post a link to that here. That way, you may retain more complete control of your own material.)