Browser Panel at SXSW

Arun's Panel at SXSWArun at AOL ran a great panel today titled Browser Wars Past and Present. There actually wasn’t much discussion of past browser wars, but there was lots of good discussion on the future of Web standards and HTML standards in particular. Opera, Microsoft and Mozilla on the same panel – great stuff. So when question time came around, I asked about when these guys are going to implement the WICD specification that we’ve (with the exception of MS) have been working on jointly in W3C for the past 2 years. To Charles’s credit, he said Opera is implementing it – great to hear it. But what I heard from Brendan Eich, CTO of Mozilla, floored me. He actually said that he doesn’t believe people are going to browse the Web on their phone. He sat there and said “I don’t believe people want to use Wikipedia from their phone.” Well — speaking as someone who has authored Wikipedia pages on mobile devices, of course my point of view is that this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about with regard to mobile, which is a bit sad because he’s obviously a smart guy in other respects. It’s typical of the willful denial that’s all too prevalent in the “Web” community about mobile, and it stems from a misapprehension about the nature of the platform. Yes, the mobile is not suited to the kind of Web browsing that people are used to on the PC. It is suited to a different kind of Web usage and interaction model, a model that the WICD spec was built to service.
So – great panel and a great discussion, and great to see Microsoft coming back to the standards table. I have very high hopes for the rechartered HTML effort. As usual, Opera is out in front regarding browser innovation and standards support.

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15 Comments on “Browser Panel at SXSW

  1. Jaysus – looks like Firefox is destined to end up in the bin with Netscape if the rest of the management team think like Brendan! :( I’ll have to run this by my buddy Ian at Glaxstar as I’m confident those guys are switched on.

    I’ve been playing around with the idea of building a mobile browser that was standards compliant… perhaps I was right in thinking there’s room for a decent play which completely supports MWI. Wot ya fink Dan, would Voda like to subsidise some R&D? ;)

  2. Please, no fainting over my calling mobile phone form-factors unsuitable for the kind of browsing most users do at desktops. It’s as if you are all Victorian gentlewomen offended by my use of “leg” rather than “limb” to describe what props up a table ;-).

    I repeat what you failed to quote from the panel: you are on the right end of a bell curve of mobile web users, most of whom do not and will never edit a wikipedia entry.

    Yes, I want the mobile web content formats to be the same as, or as close to, the non-mobile web content formats as possible.

    No, your excessive protestations do not change the fact that the form factor and usage modes of mobile devices are sufficiently different, in my humble and correct opinion, from the desktop browser big-screen high-bandwidth input device case, that the user-level tasks differ significantly between the two devices. And in spite of wanting commont standards, this means that desktop browsers may not care to cater to all the mobile-web foofarah being peddled by the w3c to deck vendors and handset makers (hardly the cutting edge of web development).

    Use wikipedia all you like (I have, but I don’t claim to represent the average mobile user). It won’t change the fundamentals.


  3. Hi Brendan — I have to apologize for the tone of my original message, which was dashed off rather hurriedly during Bruce’s closing remarks. I think you raise some good points about the usage model, which I do agree with. What I think you’ve missed is that we are heading towards a time when the majority of Web browsing will be occurring from devices that will look an awful lot like mobile phones do today. And if we expect that people still want to use their phones one-handed as they do today then they will continue to have many of the same interface challenges. I think it’s up to us as an industry to rise to that challenge and allow content developers to create compelling Web content that fits the usage model of mobile browsing — which means (among other things) being able to react to events in the mobile context and using animations and transitions to indicate change of focus state. This is one of the things that WICD is built to support.

  4. Daniel: I promise to look at WICD more closely. It still may not make sense for Firefox, but it might for Minimo.

    It seems people are not “quoting” me based on your blog as asserting that users never browse the web on mobile devices. Of course I didn’t say that, but the echo chamber is in full effect, and idiots love to attribute idiocy to others.


  5. Brendan, you want …mobile web content formats to be the same as, or as close to, the non-mobile web content formats… (and I have to agree) but then you say WICD… may not make sense for Firefox, but it might for Minimo.
    This is a bit contradicting, if you ask me. One of the advantages of using vector scalability, is for mobile oriented services to render well in a desktop environment. SVG Tiny 1.2 works beautifully on mobile phones. Finally, there is a content format, that is able to bring true excitement to small screen, one hand operational devices. WICD is about making this type of content become an integral part of all the Web.

  6. Timur: who says WICD is right for either? I know, you and Dan (Vodafone) do, but excuse me: the w3c is a pay-to-play consortium where lots of standards have been advanced by big and small companies, and too many of these standards were never adopted on the web (for any value of web).

    Mozilla has some hackers on mobile, and our W3C AC rep, all of whom have had a look at WICD. I will have more to say in due course, but I want to register an objection now. The old

    1. W3C promulgates a spec.
    2. It’s promoted for “the mobile web”.
    3. Any browser vendor who objects is labeled “contradicting” or otherwise bad.

    Sorry, but steps 1 and 2 need to be questioned before we get to step 3.


  7. Lost a line after point 3:

    The old

    1. W3C promulgates a spec.
    2. It’s promoted for “the mobile web”.
    3. Any browser vendor who objects is labeled “contradicting” or otherwise bad.

    song and dance won’t work.
    Sorry, but steps 1 and 2 need to be questioned before we get to step 3.


  8. Hmm. It is true that people who are used to browsing the desktop web (in particular Americans) have been slow to take up the experience of mobile browsing. America has, historically, been slow to take up mobile technology in general. While the first people to get telephones everywhere, Americans were the last in the world to want mobile phones and SMS – and only the fact that they are so rich the technology is effortlessly cheap seems to have put them temporarily ahead of some of the developing world in taking up the technology.

    The story goes that while Europeans and Japanese are commuting, and Indians and Chinese and Africans can afford a powerful mobile phone but not a computer as well, and central and eastern europeans pay by time/data whether they are on their dial-up lines or mobiles, Americans are sitting in their air-conditioned cars driving from home where their laptop has flat-rate broadband to their work or school, where their laptop has free broadband.

    With this background, I am somewhat surprised to meet Americans in America (yep, this includes Canadians and Mexicans) who really do “get” the mobile Web. Much as I was surprised when I first moved there a decade ago to find that people who *got* mobile phones were actually rare.

    And Brendan is right – if you sit at a fast desktop all day there is less incentive to use the web on your phone. But where I think he has misjudged is in the number of people (both in America and more particularly almost everywhere else) who aren’t sitting in front of a fast desktop, and can really benefit from the mobile web.

    People at parties in the US often have laptops, something that is rarer anywhere else I have been. But people at pubs on occasionally do, yet want to find things out, or blog their photos *right now*. People do catch trains and buses in the US. And it is a good bit of time to look for things online. People are starting to realise that while they are glued to their desk watching eBay auctions, in the mobile world people are going to the pub, the park, or the parent-teacher interview and just taking a minute out to check.

    And WICD. Yes, we mostly implement it already. And we clearly want the pieces of the Web to work well together. We think the working group is correct that making SVG and XHTML work together is important for the Web – whether Xforms is so crucial at this stage is a matter of discussion (which is why there is a working group). What about MathML, or a better plug-in API? Or making sure that the new HTML work is mobile-friendly?

    It’s true that from time to time a specification comes out and says “this is the future of XXXX”. From W3C, and from various other places too. Sometimes the spec is good, sometimes it is junk. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – so watching who is drinking that WICD Coolade is and will be interesting.

  9. I try not to run the air-conditioning in the limo while recharging my gold-plated macbook pro, honest :-P.

    My point is not peculiar to Americans. The web is good on many devices, but the web is too big to generalize as if it fits equally well on every device. And, as I said at the panel, the tasks and modes of use differ anyway. My example of typing and editing a wikipedia update was one case. Sure, hardcore mobile users will do that — they’ll ssh to a linux box and hack kernel code too. But that is not a meaningful sample.

    Most mobile users want good maps, better “messaging” and “mail” integration, some concise calendar stuff, and other shorter-term, on-the-go task-oriented user-facing applications. You can build these in a browser using web content standards, or using something like J2ME. I’m in favor of the web as platform supporting the former.

    But mobile devices will always differ enough in form factor and usage mode to induce differentiation, which will result in “mobile web” vs “web” tension. To heal the rifts, we should work on relevant standards. I’m not sure WICD is quite right (see dbaron’s blog), but its heart is in the right place.


  10. Oh come on, I’m reading this on my mobile phone Nokia 6020 with Opera Mini 3.1, and I use Wikipedia on my phone at LEAST 5 times a Day… I’m a Chinese student, mind you…

  11. AzureTimm: read what I wrote (which is what I said): *edit* wikipedia. Also try not to make yourself the norm when you are not. I mean absolutely no disrespect. I’m serious that reading fine-print documents, sitting, thinking, typing at high kpm rate, is all better done at a desktop compared to a small device in ways that will continue to fragment the “mobile web” from “the web”.

    I doubt Daniel disagrees.

    Continuing to misrepresent my position as “no one browses on phones” is, well, phony (sorry!).


  12. I don’t know whether it’s my terrible English or something, but I found typing on a tiny 9-key keypad is tremendously faster than on a keyboard. Just let you know in my case it’s about 3 times faster, with auto-correction (which is useful for a English learner like me). I have been keeping a blog for half a year on Opera Mini, you can visit it via the links I provided, almost everything I wrote is when I was waiting in a queue, walking from home to school, riding on a bus, Opera Mini always kept of occupied. Of course I don’t mean web is the same as mobile web, but web on mobile is very convenient… At least for me. Sorry for my insane ramblings. Thank you for your answer.

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