February 23, 2010

Why the iPad is not for web browsing (yet)

The conclusion is counterintuitive: Mobile Safari is great, right? It transformed mobile browsing by bringing a robust, standards-compliant, usability-focused browser to a handheld, an act that’s still not easy for the competition to follow. The iPad scales up this experience to something approximating the desktop experience, so shouldn’t it be even better? I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say it’s the worst of both worlds. At least for now.

This fine article at RoughlyDrafted details how Flash encourages interaction conventions that are incompatible with touch, meaning Flash’s absence from the iPad runs deeper than Apple-Adobe politics. The analysis is spot on, but it’s only the beginning: The problem goes far beyond Flash. The web in general—from Yahoo to Facebook—isn’t designed at all for touch. It hasn’t been so much of a problem on the iPhone, whose ability to display and navigate desktop-targeted sites was so vastly superior to its predecessors that this didn’t matter, and is still a welcome fallback for when you need access to a site but lack access to a desktop. But the iPad’s scale invites one to think of its Mobile Safari implementation as a desktop web browser, which it is, substantially, far from.

Touching what isn’t there, and other UI paradoxes

Daniel Dilger’s aforelinked article points at Flash specifically for the frequent use of touch-incompatible mouse rollover events that it engenders—but take a look at the rest of the web. Look at Yahoo’s home page: Several major interactive components won’t work in a touch environment, from the rollover flyouts on the left to the news hovers in the center. Look at Facebook: Numerous parts of the UI, such as the selective hide options in the feed, will never appear unless you hover over their contextual elements.

Which is to say nothing of other mouse-based UI conventions that won’t work, such as drag-and-drop. How will you pan a Google Maps-style field when your drag gesture is already used for page scrolling? If a site starts in minimalist mode like Google’s home page, how would you know what’s there if you don’t have a mouse to nudge? Much of the debate over Flash’s absence from the iPad and how it spells doom for Flash’s future is misplaced: You won’t be getting used to the blue Lego tiles because your use of standard desktop sites altogether will be minimal.

Under construction

Ultimately, It’s a bit like the uncanny valley: The iPad’s browser (or any other tablet browser) looks a lot like a desktop browser until you see it close up. But, just like the early days of the mobile web and later of the enhanced mobile web, this is one more opportunity. Tablet-targeted web content, that targets fingers instead of mice, is probably a good investment right now. And just like on the iPhone, desktop sites will be accessible on the iPad as a fallback. You’ll be able to read news sites and blogs in reasonable comfort, but the real web action on the iPad and other tablets will be versions of sites built for the third screen.

You’ll still use your handheld device for the mobile web. You’ll still use your desktop for the desktop web. The web the iPad is intended for isn’t built yet—but I think it’ll be a fun one to build.