File Under: Browsers, Mobile, Web Basics

Support Versus Optimization: Dealing With Mobile Web Browsers

Just a few of the many screens on the web

Last time we sent you over to Brad Frost’s blog it was for a slideshow about building a future-friendly web. Now Frost is back with some more tips for web developers in a post entitled Support vs Optimization, which tackles the thorny subject of what to do about the wide range of mobile browsers on the web.

As Frost points out the mobile world is more than just the WebKit-based iOS and Android browsers that often grab all the headlines. In fact the most widely used mobile browser is not even a WebKit browser (it’s Opera) and there are dozens of other mobile browsers out there as well. And, as the tablet market begins to expand beyond the iPad, there will likely be dozens more coming in the near future.

Faced with the diversity of the mobile browser market developers can either stick their heads in the sand and develop exclusively for WebKit browsers, or, as Frost suggests, we can be more considerate to other browsers. It can seem daunting to support dozens of mobile browsers, but if you aren’t up to the challenge of a few mobile browsers now what are you going to do when you need to support car dashboards, refrigerators, televisions and toasters, all with dozens of varying browsers? (For a more far-future look, check out Scott Jenson’s The Coming Zombie Apocalypse).

The solution, according to Frost, is to recognize the difference between supporting a browser and optimizing specifically for it.

The typical argument against supporting older BlackBerry browsers or Nokia’s WebKit fork, for example, is that these browsers don’t support nearly the number of features that iOS and Android browser’s offer. While that’s true, as with most things on the web, it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. It can actually be both. That’s what Frost means be the difference between support and optimization:

You don’t have to treat these browsers as equals to iOS and Android and no one is recommending that we have to serve up a crappy WAP site to the best smartphones on the market. It’s just about being more considerate and giving these people who want to interact with your site a functional experience. That requires removing comfortable assumptions about support and accounting for different use cases. There are ways to support lesser platforms while still optimizing for the best of the best.

For some practical advice on how you can take a more supportive approach to the wide range of mobile browsers on the market, head over to Frost’s site and read through the post. Be sure to check out the links to the various mobile emulators and brush up on the ideas behind progressive enhancement.

It’s a big web out there, with dozens of browsers and an ever-increasing number of devices connecting to it. If you want your site to be part of the future it’s going to have to work everywhere — perhaps not perfectly optimized, but at least working.

[Photo by Jeremy Keith/Flickr/CC]