WebKit, Mobile, and Progress

PPK posted some great new compat tables for various flavors of WebKit-based browsers the other day, editorializing that:

…Acid 3 scores range from a complete fail to 100 out of 100.

This is not consistency; it’s thinly veiled chaos.

But I’m not convinced that the situation is nearly that bad.

The data doesn’t reflect how fast the mobile market changes. The traditional difference between mobile and desktop, after all, has been that mobile is moving at all. If you figure a conservative 24 month average replacement cycle for smartphones, then the entire market for browsers turns over every two years. And that’s the historical view. An increasing percentage of smartphone owners now receive regular software updates that provide new browsers even faster. What matters then is how old the WebKit version in a particular firmware is and how prevalant that firmware is in the real world. As usual, distribution and market share are what matters in determining real-world compatibility, and if that’s a constantly changing secnario, the data should at least reflect how things are changing.

So what if we add a column to represent the vintage of the tested WebKit versions? Here’s a slightly re-formatted version of PPK’s summary data, separated by desktop/mobile and including rough WebKit vintages (corrections and new data much appreciated if you happen to know!):

Desktop
Browser Score (max 216) Vintage
Safari 4.0 204 2009
Chrome 3 192 2009
Chrome 2 188 Early 2009
Safari 3.1 159 2008
Chrome 1 153 Early 2008
Safari 3.0 108 2007
Konqueror 3.5.7 103 2007
Konqueror (newer, untested) 0 ??
Mobile
Browser Score (max 216) Vintage
Ozone (version?) 185 (?) Late 2009
iPhone 3.1 172 2009
Iris (version?) 163 (??) 2008
JIL Emulator (version?) 162 ??
Bolt (version?) 155 ??
iPhone 2.2 152 2008
Android G2 (version? 1.6?) 144 (??) Late 2008
Palm Pre (version?) 134 ??
Android G1 (1.5?) 108 (??) 2008
Series 60 v5 93 (??) 2008
Series 60 v3 (feature pack?) 45 2005

PPKs data is missing some other columns too, namely a rough estimate of the percent of mobile handsets running a particular version, rates of change in that landscape over the past 18 months, and whether or not these browsers are on the whole better than the deployed fleet of desktop browsers. Considering that web devs today still can’t target everything in Acid2, knowing how the mobile world compares to desktops will provide some much-needed context for these valuable tables. Perhaps those are things that we as a community can chip in to help provide.

Even without all of that, just adding the rough vintages adds an arc to the story; one that’s not nearly so glum and dreary. What we can see is that newer versions of WebKit are much more capable and compatible, even at the edges. None of PPK’s data yet tests where the baseline is, so remember that the numbers presented mostly describe new-ish features on the platform. We also see clearly that the constraints of the mobile environment force some compromises vs. desktop browsers of the same lineage. This is all in line with what I’d expect from a world where:

  • WebKit is becoming the dominant smartphone rendering engine, finding its way into myriad devices due to its performance, compatibility with web content, clean C++ codebase, and straightforward API
  • Vendors upgrade the version of WebKit they ship when they release new OS versions. Very few mobile devices enjoy long-term OTA updates (yet).
  • Deployed smartphone stock turns over every 2 years

The important takeaway for web developers in all of this is that WebKit is winning and that that is a good thing. The dynamics of the marketplace have thus far ensured that we don’t get “stuck” the way we did on the desktop. That is real progress.

Where do we go from here? Given that the mobile marketplace is changing at a rate that’s nearly unheard of on the desktop, I think that when new charts and comparisons are made, we’ll need to couch them in terms of “how does this affect the difference in capabilities across the deployed base”, rather than simply looking at instantaneous features. Mobile users are at once more likely tied to their OSes choice of browser and more likely to get a better browser sooner. That combination defies how we think about desktop browsers, so we’ll need to add more context to get a reasonable view of the mobile world.

7 Comments

  1. Erik Corry
    Posted October 11, 2009 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    Google Chrome version 1 launched December 10 2008, so “early 2008” isn’t accurate.

  2. Posted October 11, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Hey Erik:

    Do you know when WebKit was branched/stabilized for that release? What I’m mostly after is what the layout behavior would have been at the time. Regardless, I’ll drop the “early”. Thanks!

  3. Posted October 11, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I whole-heartedly agree that those columns should be added, and that the outlook for webkit in the mobile market is moving quickly towards a good one (thanks to webkit and the differences in lifecycles).

    However, I have to also point out that PPK is a _saint_ for the amount of time and effort that he has put into releasing the information for all of us. I just needed to make sure that if he read this article, that he didn’t feel that what he was doing was without appreciation.

    The added data that Alex suggests would also be very beneficial and perhaps what makes all the research _even more_ usable.

    Thanks to both of you for trying to categorize all of this in an unbiased and informative way.

  4. JulesLt
    Posted October 12, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    What would be nice would be if we could presume that the vendors would roll out updates to their phones.

    Instead, the G1 is already out of the running for Android updates.

  5. Joe Walker
    Posted October 12, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    “If you figure a conservative 24 month average replacement cycle for smartphones, then the entire market for browsers turns over every two years”

    Replacement cycle != Trash cycle

    I don’t know what percentage of people pass on phones to friends/relations or sell on ebay, but I’d guess that it’s enough to skew the numbers to a turn over time that’s longer.

  6. Posted October 12, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Joe:

    Good point! It’d be neat if someone had definitive market penetration rates to peg the numbers against. Particularly as lowly feature phones become web-aware, it’ll start to matter more and more. There might also be the chance to get “stuck” if those hand-me-downs are models which for whatever reason never get OTA updates (to Jules’s point).

    Regards

  7. Posted October 13, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    What about the developing world?

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