Tag Archives: ie6

The mobile web is broken — and Firefox OS will fix it

Ten years ago the web was broken, but Mozilla fixed it with Firefox. Today, the mobile web is just as broken — and Mozilla will fix it again with Firefox OS. Read on to learn how.

Monopolies are bad for customers

A common sight in 2003.

Not everyone has been around long enough to remember it, but the web used to be dominated by a single company that dictated most of its terms. Ten years ago, most dynamic websites were built using ActiveX, a technology developed by Microsoft that only worked in Internet Explorer on Windows due to its close ties with the underlying APIs of the operating system. For customers, this meant that in order to use the (then) modern web, you had to use Internet Explorer 6 — and you had to use Windows. Over time, other technologies like Flash and Shockwave eventually replaced the role of ActiveX, and this opened up interoperability across platforms a little bit since those technologies worked on Mac OS as well, but minority OSes like Linux were still in the dark with either non-existent or obsolete versions of these proprietary technologies.

At Mozilla, we saw these problems and understood the importance of cross-platform interoperability and standards on the web. Standards are good for customers, developers, and the whole industry because they promote freedom, choice, and innovation. In Mozilla’s eyes, having one for-profit company continuing to dictate the terms of the web would lead to a very dark future. So we created Firefox.

Mozilla fixed the desktop web with Firefox

Few people believed back in 2003 that an open source web browser built by a tiny non-profit would stand a chance to beat a giant like Microsoft at its own game. The odds were certainly against us — Microsoft’s combined market share exceeded 95% the year before Firefox 1.0 shipped. But we all know the history that followed: Firefox quickly disrupted the monopoly and introduced a kick-ass web browser that focused on users’ needs by creating a truly delightful browsing experience — and more importantly, one that actually followed web standards. This had enormous effects on the web: suddenly developers started to innovate again and created new experiences that no one had seen before (pre-Firefox, innovation on the web was basically limited to figuring out new ways to annoy users with pop-ups and scrolling marquees).

As a result of our success with Firefox, Microsoft woke up from its self-declared hibernation of IE6 and decided to pick up the development of their browser again to catch up on some of the new web standards that developers were now using extensively thanks to Firefox. This pushed the innovation forward even faster because the lowest common denominator on the web (IE) slowly became a browser largely following the latest web standards. It also made it possible for other players to enter the web browsing market. And this is what makes the web as cross-platform compatible as it is today. It’s still not perfect, but the difference since 2003 is dramatic.

coffeeLet’s be clear about this: the reason why you can buy just about any desktop computer or mobile device today and expect websites to work without hick-ups is because Mozilla created Firefox! We take this interoperable web mostly for granted today, but it’s important to remember that just ten years ago, this was a utopia.

Web sites → Apps

Fast forward to today and the landscape and definition of the web has changed. The web is turning mobile and people increasingly use phones, tablets and other mobile devices to get online. But it’s not just the usage of the web that has changed — the web itself is different too. The most notable change is that the majority of the time spent online using mobile devices is happening in native web apps developed specifically for the platform of that particular handset — not on actual web sites viewed through a traditional web browser. For example, instead of going directly to http://www.twitter.com, people download the Twitter app for their phone. In other words, native apps are increasingly becoming the lens through which the web is viewed these days. Why is this? The short answer is historical reasons.

The slightly longer answer: Native apps were faster and more capable than web technologies when smart phones started to become mainstream a few years ago. The web itself didn’t have capabilities like offline storage or technologies optimized to create snappy and app-like user interfaces. Web standards also lacked direct hooks to crucial hardware like the camera and other important parts of the device. (It’s relevant to point out that today’s web technologies do have all of these app-like capabilities; more on that later.)

Duopolies are just as bad

If you consider the issues ten years ago with web sites that only worked on certain platforms, you begin to see the connection with today’s mobile web apps that only work on certain mobile platforms. Today’s situation isn’t any better than the monopoly we were facing on the desktop before Firefox came along.

For customers, these isolated vertical silos mean limited choice and freedom, because you can’t easily switch from one platform to the other without a lot of headache and changed workflows. For example, if you’re used to the iPhone and have purchased a bunch of apps for it, you will basically have to start from scratch if you decide to switch to an Android-powered phone. There might be some overlap, but there will no doubt be a handful of apps that you simply won’t be able to use anymore. And you’ll most likely have to pay for many apps again. This sucks. It’s a bit like not being able to access certain websites just because you switched to a different operating system. Déjà vu anyone?

Example of how the apps world is scattered and incompatible today.

Example of how the apps world is scattered and incompatible today.

For developers, the situation is a nightmare, since you have to almost double the development resources to reach most of your customers. And with Tizen and Windows Phone and other mobile OSes lined up and eager to get their own share of this old vertical silo landscape, it’s easy to see how this way of doing business on the mobile web isn’t financially viable for anyone but the largest app development houses. Who wants to develop an app five times?

And customers will of course continue to suffer just as much in this scattered model (“when is Spotify coming to Windows Phone?” and “Why doesn’t Instagram have the same art filters on Android and iOS?”).

Mozilla will fix the mobile web with Firefox OS

Enter Firefox OS. The whole idea with Firefox OS is to make the web itself the platform not just for traditional web sites, but for apps as well.  Apps are the new lens through which the web is mostly used on mobile devices today — and the new, modern html5-based web is more than ready to power it.

Crucially, Mozilla isn’t trying to create its own new silo — the goal is to demonstrate that the web itself is capable of powering apps on all platforms, and to bring web platform interoperability to the mobile apps world. This will disrupt the whole industry for the benefit of both customers and developers, and it will bring the same benefits to the mobile web that Firefox brought to the desktop web: freedom, choice, and innovation. Case in point: today you can choose between many modern browsers on the desktop: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and IE — and you don’t have to worry about whether your favorite web sites will work or not. Firefox made that possible. And that’s exactly the future we are building for the mobile web with Firefox OS!

What does this mean for developers? Imagine writing an app once and immediately having it running on all major and minor mobile platforms. If you write your app using web standards like html5, that’s a possibility. The cost savings will be enormous.

What does it mean for customers? Imagine a world where you truly own the apps you’ve purchased and where you have the freedom to choose any mobile platform and even switch between them over time — and take all your apps with you wherever you go. You might start with an Android device in 2012, then switch to a Firefox OS device in 2013, and perhaps you want to try iPhone 7 in 2015 (only to dump it in favor of Firefox OS again in 2016). Regardless of your choice, your apps will follow along with you and work just as well on all of these devices. Sounds like utopia? Déjà vu anyone?

fxosphone

This is why I’m so excited about what Mozilla is doing right now to disrupt the web and open it up once more. We did the impossible ten years ago, and we’re ready to do it again.

And the best part of it all is that if Mozilla wins, everybody wins!

The next browser war: Users vs Web Content

Browser wars is a popular (and retro!) topic these days. In this post I’ll discuss another kind of browser war that I’m afraid all browsers are at risk of losing.

One side-effect of a richer web experience with html5, Javascript and CSS is that it becomes increasingly harder for web browsers to stop bad web design practices for the benefit of the user. Firefox is known for putting the user’s needs first and pioneered mainstream use of features designed to make the web experience better for users – the pop-up blocker is perhaps the most notable example.

Features like the pop-up blocker were not designed for web developers — they were designed completely in the interest of users, who were fed up with annoying ads that popped up over and under the web page you were currently visiting. This effectively forced web designers to adjust their practices and keep the users’ interests more prominently in mind. I think this is a wonderful example of how web browsers can change the web for the better. Before the pop-up blocker, web designers were dictating how their web sites should behave, and users had no other choice but to put up with it.

There are of course many other examples of when browser features have helped tame annoying web design practices, such as scrolling text in status bars, disabling the context menu when right-clicking, and blocking third-party cookies — the general theme is that the browser balances the sometimes bad urges of web developers and designers with the actual needs of the user. And as a result, the web becomes a better place. Mozilla has its own spin on this that captures the essence of Firefox: Firefox answers to no one but you.

The yellow pop-up blocker info bar in Firefox. A rare sight these days.

Today, however, you don’t see the little pop-up icon  in the location bar of Firefox very often anymore. This is because “true” pop-ups, (in the traditional/technical sense) are no longer common. It used to be that, in order to display a pop-up, web developers had to use Javascript methods like window.open to tell the browser that it wants a new window to be open so the (usually annoying) ad could be shown.

Back in 2004, when Firefox was first launched, window.open was the way of displaying pop-ups. These kinds of pop-ups are trivial for Firefox to detect, since the web page creates a separate browser window for the ad (this usually happens when a page loads, or at some other event which is straightforward enough for a browser to determine that it isn’t explicitly requested by the user).

Today, most modern web sites have become smarter and use more sophisticated technologies to display pop-up ads embedded within the web page triggering the ad. In fact, a quick anecdotal survey shows that most large, international websites have completely stopped using the traditional pop-ups. You can still find them on smaller or more local websites though (for example, Swedish news sites like aftonbladet.se are typically a year or two behind the more recent web page practices used on websites from the US in general, and the Valley in particular). The original pop-up blocking implementation certainly still matters, but its relevance is decreasing.

New websites use all sorts of clever (and highly annoying) tricks to make sure their ads are not missed by anyone:

  • Inline pop-ups — these behave similar to the traditional pop-ups, but the ad content isn’t actually displayed in a separate window. Instead, the ad is embedded in the web page itself. From a technological point of view, a browser is then unable to distinguish the ad from the rest of the web page, so it can’t block it.
  • Hover ads — this is similar to inline pop-ups, but taken to an increasingly more annoying level: here, the ad doesn’t just block a particular area of the web page, it follows along on your screen as you scroll down on the page — often with a smooth movement to give the impression that it’s actually hovering over the page. It’s like the ad is trying to say “I’m here! Look, I’m still here!”
  • Splash screen ads (I just made this term up) —  these are by far the most annoying ads and are commonly seen on sites like di.se and e24.se (two popular finance websites in Sweden). This is like an ad saying: “Look, I’m not going to let you read the web page until you’ve paid attention to ME!” Web designers do this by overlaying the ad so it completely covers the content of the page (alternatively, it redirects you to a separate page). If you pay close attention, you will see a tiny link to get to the page you actually wanted to visit, but the web designer has usually made it the smallest link on the entire page — despite the fact it’s the link you are most likely going to want to click. These type of web pages clearly answer to no one but the ad provider — certainly not to you.
  • Video ads — as videos are getting more and more mainstream, the most common practice today by content providers is to show an ad before playing the video clip you actually requested. This is similar to those “important messages” you see when inserting some DVDs, and just like those messages, you can’t skip these ads. You simply have no choice but to watch the entire thing. (Some content providers add a small clock countdown in the corner to at least let you know how long you have to put up with watching the ad — it’s clear that they’re aware of the inconvenience for the user here.)

All of these types of web ads have one thing in common: it’s next to impossible for web browsers to block them. These ads are, from a technical point of view, integral parts of the web page itself, and as such they’re indistinguishable from the “good” content on the page.

Where do we go from here?

Web browsers make at least a bit of an effort to block advertisement today with their aged pop-up blocker feature, but it’s also clear that they are not able to block all attempts of displaying advertisement on the web. (And should they? Unless we can create a world where advertisement is not just generally unwanted, but also not necessary to make the online economy spin, I would say we probably shouldn’t try to block them all. But that’s a much deeper discussion than I’m aiming for in this blog post.)

More importantly, however, web browsers are no longer stopping bad design practices. Showing an ad as a splash overlay covering the entire page and blocking the user from seeing the actual content of the page is exactly the kind of thing that Firefox effectively stopped in 2004 — but so far there is no solution in place in any web browser on the market to stop the new pop-up behavior that is at least as bad as the traditional pop-ups.

Taking a step back, what is the role of the browser in this new world where web pages are becoming more like web applications that live a life on their own terms? How can we ensure that the browser still acts as a balance that puts the user first? Of course, I don’t have the answers to these broad questions, but it’s definitely something I think must be discussed.