War is hell - for developers

Guest post: the oncoming mobile browser wars


Tom Spencer of Mubaloo looks at the increasing fragmentation of the mobile browser market, as Firefox OS and Windows Phone 8 join the smartphone OS party.

With WebKit currently powering both Mobile Safari and the Android browser, which combined take up 81% of the total mobile and tablet market share, most mobile sites and apps are currently geared towards the open-source rendering engine. However, with the introduction of Firefox and Mobile IE10, will these figures start to change? Unlike Safari and Chrome, these new browsers are not based on WebKit and, if they become popular, web developers will have to consider not only the wide range of desktop browsers, but mobile ones too.

Safari is a niche browser on desktop, so how has it become so dominant in the mobile and tablet market? One of the main reasons is that Safari is set as the default browser on all iOS devices – so users are always sent back to the browser if they click a web view within a third-party app – and with no option to set any competing browsers as default, those with iOS devices will likely end up using Safari.

Another reason Safari fares so well against other browsers is because of its powerful Nitro JavaScript rendering engine. Third-party browser developers are banned from using this rendering engine for security reasons, giving Safari a huge advantage in browser speed. Some argue that this defence is an excuse to restrict competitors, ensuring Safari will always remain the quickest and dominant browser on iOS. For example, Chrome for iOS is developed around a UIWebView to adhere to the Apple terms and conditions, meaning that it lacks its unique V8 JavaScript engine and will never run as fast as Safari.

Yet despite its speed issues, Chrome went straight to the number one position in the App Store, indicating a strong consumer demand for alternate browsers on iOS platforms. There are already a range of browsers in the App Store including Dolphin, Opera Mini, Skyfire and Mercury – but the majority of iOS users are unaware of these, and because of Apple’s security concerns, they will never compete with Safari’s speed. Mozilla have notably boycotted iOS devices, releasing sync app Firefox Home instead of a cut-down browser.

Android users have considerably more choice, and the most interesting recent development is Chrome being set as the default browser for the first time in an Android device on the Nexus 7 tablet. Many leading tech and development blogs have reported that Chrome will be the default browser on Android’s next OS Jelly Bean – but this in fact isn’t the case. This is particularly unfortunate, since the stock Android browser is renowned in the developer community for its poor performance, particularly in Froyo and Gingerbread. The sooner Google Chrome becomes the default browser for all Android devices, the better, as far as Mubaloo’s developers are concerned.

Apple and Google are major mobile players with their own browsers and operating systems, but the upcoming launch of Windows Phone 8 will bring a new mobile browser and OS to contend with. Mobile IE 10 for Windows Phone 8 uses the same rendering engine as its desktop equivalent, as well as improved JavaScript and HTML5 performance, making it a strong competitor against other browsers when it is released later this year. Don’t get too hopeful yet, though: many developers have become used to being seduced by the next generation of Internet Explorer, only to find its quirks and performance issues still present. Time will tell whether IE10 is an actual improvement.

Finally, the upstart in the mobile browser wars is the only one without the backing of a giant corporation – Firefox. The recent release of a new version of Firefox for Android, as well as the upcoming FirefoxOS, could add a third rendering engine into the mix.

As the mobile browser landscape rapidly changes, developers are having to face an increasing range of user configurations. Could this be the start of the mobile browser wars?

Mubaloo is one of the UK’s leading mobile app development companies specialising in bespoke mobile solutions for businesses and brands.

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