Could Mobile Safari become the next IE 6?

Mobile Safari equals IE6

I heard a great quote a year or two ago about how software developers always want to reinvent the wheel.

Most other scientific disciplines require you to learn from others before building upon what they have done. Sir Issac Newton’s oft quoted “if I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants” is testament to this.

The inevitable conclusion of this is that the current generation of software developers is likely to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.

IE 6 Must Die

IE 6 is terrible. Fact. Surely I can’t disagree with that. It breaks all the standards, and requires elaborate workarounds to get anything decent to work. At Caplin we are proud that Caplin Trader performs well in IE6 since many of our customers still use this as their internal browser, but the undeniable truth is that it performs a lot better in modern browsers.
Well, for those of us who remember its arrival 10 years ago, IE 6 was heralded the pinnacle of evolution. Its main competitor Netscape never really recovered from version 4 which supported a document object model (DOM) that few developers would identify with today based around a layer tag. Of course out of the ashes of Netscape literally rose Phoenix, which was later renamed as Firefox, although that’s a different story.

At its height in 2004 IE 6 had around an 83% of the share of the browser market (with another 8% held by IE 5). Such dominance that it is unsurprising that a large number of web developers only focussed on making their pages work in IE, including making use of non-standards behaviours and proprietary APIs that would later come back to haunt us.

Mobile Safari – History Repeating Itself?

Mobile Safari equals IE6
Does Mobile Safari equal IE6?

Fast forwarding to the era of the mobile web, the question arises as to whether we are repeating the mistakes of the past by targeting our mobile web efforts purely at Mobile Safari?

There is little doubt that the popularity of the iPhone and iPad has ignited the rapid acceleration in interest in the mobile web. However only focusing on making web pages optimised for these “iDevices” has the potential to exclude a large number of your users from getting the best possible user experience.

The latest figures for Mobile Safari (excluding the iPad) show that it only has a 22% share of the mobile browser market (data from March 2011). This percentage has been slowly decreasing over the past couple of years and is likely to continue as the number of smartphone owners increase, with the greatest growth at the cheaper end of the market, thereby diluting the “iDevice” share.

To be fair to Mobile Safari, it is certainly more standards based than IE 6 ever was, therefore sites designed to work on the iPhone/iPad are more likely to work on other mobile devices.

However failure to test on other devices is likely to produce, at best, sub optimal experiences for users. As my colleague Dominic Chambers’ recently blogged, there are still many differences between the various mobile browsers. Progressive enhancement remains the web developer’s best weapon to cope with this.

Learning From Past Mistakes

The hypocrisy of condemning websites that only work on IE 6 compared to those being written now only for Mobile Safari is stark.

At the moment there may be good justification for only focussing on Mobile Safari (despite its 22% market share). However back in 2004 a number of web developers used similar justifications for an IE 6 focussed site (because of its 83% market share), and look where that got us.

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