Apple’s iPhone X May Have Started Another Browser War

Matt Cotter
Oct 4, 2017 · 5 min read

Ten years ago, Apple released the iPhone and opened Pandora’s box. The iPhone completely up-ended the ways we interacted with the Internet and each other while ushering in a wave of innovative technology and new ideas. Prior to the iPhone, the convention was in order to support mobile and desktop users, they would deserve two separate web sites in addition to a myriad of hacks and fixes just to work on IE alone.

Naturally, this methodology was not without its flaws.

Within a few short years, though, we began to collectively connect the dots and mobile evangelists like Luke Wroblewski and Ethan Marcotte helped light the way for the web industry by coining and laying out their vision for strategies we call “Mobile First” and “Responsive Web Design”. Once these ideas were out in the wild, there was simply no going back and opened up a Pandora’s box in their own right.

Progressive enhancement is part of the core of these philosophies and design approaches. Without boring people with the technical details, this means that regardless of what device or browser you enter a website’s address on to, the website just simply works. This was a far cry from the days when the Internet only knew Netscape and IE. More on that later.

But now, ten years after the original iPhone release, we looked to Apple to once again set the trail ablaze and usher in the second coming. Instead, we were left scratching our head at one of the quirkiest design decisions that Apple has made since removing the headphone jack and a potentially far wider reaching one.

What in holy hell are we supposed to do about that notch, Apple?

Since it’s announcement, this has been a big question mark for developers of every type.

Now before I say too much more, let me say that by every measurable standard, the iPhone X is a sleek looking piece of machinery despite its hefty price point. Also, the specs are drool-worthy. I mean, look at those Javascript rendering times!

It’s almost too easy to overlook, but the alarm bells have started going off and people aren’t asking how to design with it but how to design around it.

We now have (some) answers. Webkit, the web engine used by the likes of browsers like Chrome, Safari and Opera, released an article on how to approach web design for the iPhone X and personally, I’m kind of miffed over it.

How fitting is it that the ancestor to the device that helped bring us the idea of the web being “device agnostic” is forced to push new Webkit specific standards in order to support websites to display “properly” on the iPhone X … in landscape mode? That’s an isolated edge case scenario if I ever heard one.

Yes, the iPhone X will have built-in default behavior to handle websites that don’t want to support what is arguably the most talked about device of the year — two ugly white bars on either side of the browser. Think of the possibilities!

Our future has never looked brighter

A website now has to include extra code to support a specific use case (landscape mode) on a specific device (the iPhone X). We spent years ironing situations like this — and typically, old browsers were the culprit — only for Apple to re-open them with the newest release of what is arguably the best iPhone it ever created.

Some might argue there is data “out there” that seems to indicate most mobile & tablet users browse the web using portrait mode and not landscape mode. What you might not realize though is that completely misses the point, nor does it dismiss Apple from scrutiny.

Forgetting the Lessons Learned

For those of us who have been making web sites on the web since the 90’s, the web has evolved at an unprecedented rate and many battles have been fought for what we call web standards. We remember when Microsoft’s IE and Netscape fought to lure each other’s users away with “new features” like the infamous <marquee> and <blink> HTML tags. The only thing that the browser war successfully did was make developers lives miserable for simply trying to make the web accessible to everyone.

The amount of work and diligence required to pull off what we have now is staggering and should not go unappreciated. Now, tech giants like Microsoft, Apple (to its credit), Google, Mozilla and a myriad of others collaborate and have worked together for years now to responsibly create an environment that works unilaterally for everyone.

And now, with this seemingly otherwise innocuous design choice, Apple has opened us up to the possibility of a new type of “device”-specific browser war. It goes against the spirit and good will web standards have helped achieve.

Samsung vs Apple

It’s well known that Samsung is the closest threat to Apple in terms of hardware. It’s also well known that Samsung’s default browser, Samsung Internet, isn’t the most used Android browser but gaining speed and still has a noticeable market share.

The good news is that Google Chrome is Android’s most popular browser. They and Apple’s Safari both use Webkit so the same features I’m knocking here will probably make it’s way into Chrome in addition to Safari. The bad news is, according to this in-depth Smashing Magazine article on Samsung Internet, it uses the Chromium rendering engine (no relation to Google or Chrome though, I should mention).

That’s not to say that Chromium is bad, but now that the iPhone X is out in the wild, will Samsung take a chance on a quirky design choice of their own — and if so, will Chromium have to respond as Webkit has to accomodate it?

I don’t mean to paint a picture where this will throw us back to the stone age, nor am I calling for us to boycott or not buy an Apple product. That being said, I still have to wonder what Apple is thinking.

Quick correction: Chrome stopped using WebKit in v27 and switched to Blink, which is a fork of Webkit. Apologies for the mix-up.

Matt Cotter

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Dad, occasional guitar player & Full Stack Developer for Bitstorm Connect