Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

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!):

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 ??
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:

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.

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