Rob Knight

What the iPhone means for web developers

January 10, 2007

As I drool over the streaming video of today’s iPhone launch, one reality is starting to sink in. It is time to start thinking of the web for mobile phones. Of course, numerous phones currently have web browsers and mobile devices have accessed the web for several years now. But now Apple has done it. And as much as you want to hate me for being an Apple evangelist, when Apple does something, people notice.

Now they have created a mobile phone. And it has wi-fi. So you don’t have to pay for high speed mobile data network plans to get internet access on the iPhone. For some people, paying expensive monthly fees for high speed data access over a mobile network is a no-brainer. But for those of us who could never afford such plans, having wi-fi built into the iPhone makes all of the internet-based features of the phone (email, messaging, web browsing) accessible. Assuming that the iPhone will sell a few units (wink wink), the mobile web is about to go mainstream.

For a web developer, this is an exciting time. Work that I do now can be accessed from nearly anywhere at anytime. The caveat to that is: work that I do can now be accessed from any size screen on any number of products with any combination of processors, and form factors.

That means that we need to build websites that scale, literally for any size screen. To make life easier on us, Apple’s iPhone uses the same HTML rendering engine as their Safari web browser. One can only hope other phone manufacturers follow suit, because the multitude of proprietary browsers on mobile devices up until now has made transitioning to the mobile web a difficult task for web developers. Having to make sure a site looks good on 3-4 browsers is a difficult task. Having to make sure a site looks good on 20 different mobile phone web browsers makes web developers poop their pants. It’s a messy task.

So now we have a mobile phone coming in June that has wi-fi, a standards compliant web browser built in, and a sub-4 inch screen. Did you catch that hint? Standards compliant. If I as a web developer use web standards in building out websites, I can offer clients a smooth transition to the mobile web. No expensive ports or re-designs for mobile devices. Build the site with content (XHTML) and presentation (CSS) separated, using semantic coding practices, and the transition to a mobile web can be achieved without touching the site content.

As smooth as it sounds, moving to the mobile web will not be without hickups. On any site, there is the content layer (XHTML), the presentation layer (CSS), and the behavior layer (Javascript, Flash). As the web has advanced, that behavior layer has become considerably more advanced. Many sites on the web simply fail to work with Javascript disabled. Moving those advanced behavior layers to a mobile device hasn’t been easy up until now. Javascript support in mobile devices has been spotty at best, and poop-my-pants-bad at worst. We’ll have to wait and see how Apple has handled it in the iPhone to get a gauge of where we stand with mobile devices. It is promising to see a slick implementation of Google Maps on the iPhone. Google Maps is an advanced web application with a complex behavior layer.

Again, I know all of this technology exists in phones available today. But it can’t be understated that Apple has now entered the market. That single fact that will change the shape of the mobile phone market and the mobile web over the next 12 months and beyond. As a web developer, I’m excited to see what comes from this and I’m looking forward to developing for mobile users in the months to come.

Please feel free to tell me I’m full of shit in the comments. (Do I detect a poop theme?)