Dev

Silicon Valley’s war for the mobile web

If you work at a major Silicon Valley tech company and that company isn’t Apple, you’ve got skin in the mobile web game. But advocating for and working on the mobile web is becoming increasingly politicized and divisive.

On the one side, you have Facebook drumming up a consortium of heavy hitters, including the vocally pro-mobile-web Mozilla, Microsoft, Verizon, Samsung, and around 25 other companies, to work within a W3C community group establishing benchmarks for the industry. On the other side, you have Yahoo and, even more conspicuously, Google, which are not participating in the community’s mobile web love-fest, but which have an incredible amount of weight to throw around in this arena.

Official statements from all of these companies show the same thing: They believe in the power and potential of the mobile web to flourish and eventually become more prevalent than native platforms.

You would think, given their identical aspirations, the three titans –Facebook, Yahoo, and Google — would pool their boundless resources to fast-track the mobile web from the janky, derided ghetto it is to the elegant utopia each of these parties sees in the near future. Yet they remain divided rather than collaborating, which means consumers lose and innovation stagnates.

So who are these players, what are they trying to accomplish, and why aren’t they all rowing together toward bright, happy shore of mobile web Elysium? As always, when corporate shenanigans don’t make any sense, you have to follow the money.


Facebook: The ringleader and the troublemaker

For the youngest company involved in the Great Mobile Web Push of 2012, Facebook brings a remarkable power and urgency to the work at hand. Facebook had no mobile presence whatsoever a mere four years ago. Now, its shoving its way to the front of the fray, most notably in its work with Ringmark.

“No one company can fix all of these, but We are very keen to work with the industry, browser vendors, OEMs, carriers, and developers themselves to smooth away those challenges,” said Facebooker James Pearce.

Pearce, a former physics teacher, now spearheads mobile developer relations for the social network. At a recent meeting of the unofficial Facebook press corps, Pearce led journalists through a rundown of Facebook’s views on the mobile web. While the company does invest heavily in Android and iOS apps, it sees twice the amount of traffic coming from the mobile web as it does from either of those native platforms.

“Users are actually wanting to use the mobile web version when it’s available,” said Pearce, “so for a third-party app developer, the same logic may apply.” However, he continued, mobile browsers and mobile devices themselves aren’t living up to their end of the bargain.

To that end, Facebook engineers created Ringmark, a visual demonstration that shows how well a given mobile device and mobile browser combo performs. Ringmark runs the device quickly through a series of tests and shows how many “rings” or levels of tests the device/browser was able to jump through.

Ringmark was catapulted into a W3C project, the Core Mobile Web Platform Community Group. The group’s goal is to get more developers to make mobile web apps, a feat it will accomplish by creating standards that will make mobile web development a more pleasant process and by holding mobile browser vendors and mobile device manufacturers to those standards.

“Responsibility is a big work, but pulling together this working group has been easy,” said Pearce. “I think the industry was ready for that to happen, and we think of ourselves as good industry citizens. We do think we have a responsibility.”

But organizing the group hasn’t been without its challenges. Apple and Google were invited to participate, but neither company chose to be involved, even though they make the two most popular mobile browsers in use today.

“Everyone else in the industry has the motivation to see this be successful,” said Pearce, carefully skirting any direct condemnation of the iOS and Android makers. “I can’t see any reason why a browser vendor would not want to maximize the number of apps that will run in that runtime.”


Mozilla: Forever the ally

Mozilla didn’t hesitate to join Facebook and is now one of the more important community group partners. For ages, Mozilla has spearheaded better standards for browsing the web, framing a consumer-friendly conversation and provoking older browsers like Internet Explorer into new and innovative territory.

First codenamed Fennec, Mozilla’s browser for mobile devices began its life several years ago as a buggy but still thrilling alpha product. Due to Apple’s policies of vertical lockout, you can’t download this mobile version of Firefox on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, so Fennec eventually turned into Firefox for Android. The experience was revolutionary. The mobile browser could sync open tabs and bookmarks with the desktop version, and it made leaps of progress in the mobile browser territory.

“iPhone and iPad are clearly great experiences,” said Mozilla VP Jay Sullivan in a long and winding conversation late last year. “But certain pieces of hardware running certain OSes driven by a gatekeeper, we think that is not great in the long term for openness, choice and innovation… And it’s not great for developer innovation.”

Mozilla was in a unique position to improve the mobile browsing experience in ways that would prompt radical change on the part of more mainstream mobile browser makers (Apple and Google). And the Mozilla Foundation was in a unique position to champion the mobile web free of any bias or ties to a mobile operating system.

So, for Mozilla, nothing was more natural than partnering with Facebook (another OS-neutral tech company) to work on making the mobile web a better place to develop, to browse, to play, and to work. The Foundation is actively working on a distribution center for mobile web apps, as well — a sort of mobile-web version of the App Store and the Android Market put together — that Facebook says is one of the biggest missing pieces in convincing developers to take the mobile web as a platform more seriously.

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