Make the Web Great Again (aka My Mobile Browser Manifesto)

TL;DR: Mobile web browsers suck.

Mobile web browsers suck. The world moved from desktop to mobile, but browsers and search results stayed the same. They are basically desktop experiences crammed onto a phone.

Why hasn’t anyone re-imagined the browser for mobile? Because it’s easy to become complacent with the shortcomings all around us. We almost missed out on incredible innovations like Google because of these blind spots.

I realized mobile browsing was a huge blind spot, so I joined Cake to better connect everyone with the incredible ideas and information on the Internet by removing unnecessary friction and barriers.

If the web is to thrive in a mobile world, we need something better.

Remember When Surfing the Web was Awesome?

Not long ago I realized that mobile web browsers suck — massively.

To explain why, let me turn back the clock. In 1994, Netscape Navigator launched as the first truly mass-market web browser. It was an incredible leap in ease of use that ushered in adoption of the world wide web. And surfing the web was awesome! Just two years later, Google emerged from the primordial soup of 1s and 0s on Stanford’s campus to revolutionize the world by making information more findable than ever before. Google’s PageRank was revolutionary because it used the votes of the web to create a much better way to surface exactly what we were looking for.

Since then, unfortunately, not much has changed. The introduction of Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome, in what came to be known as the “browser wars”, gave us a bit more speed and a few UX improvements like a search bar, ad-blockers, and tabs. But Google’s search results still look almost identical to their initial design, only now there are more ads to scroll past before getting to the first organic search result link.

While searching in a web browser remained largely the same, the world shifted rapidly toward mobile devices. Apple released the iPhone in 2007, making touch-enabled devices a fantastic user experience — in fact, well over 50% of searches now happen through smartphones. Yet browsing on a smartphone is startlingly close to browsing on a desktop back in the late 90s. No one re-conceptualized the browser or search results for mobile. We simply crammed a desktop experience into the tight confines of a phone. That’s a problem.

Browsers that returned text-based search results made sense in a pre-touch screen, pre-high-speed internet, and pre-mobile era. Search results were text-based because network bandwidth was heavily constrained, and text is easy to transmit. Text is also easy to scan and mouse-click on a large desktop monitor. But on a smaller mobile device, text can be difficult to read, takes up too much real-estate, requires scrolling to reach the first organic result, and hearkens back to a time before LTE connections were the norm. In fact, a recent study shows that it takes 87% longer to get to the first organic listing on mobile search results than on desktop.

Source: Eye Tracking in 2016: How Searchers Interact with Mobile SERPs vs. Desktop

What’s more, text-based results are antiquated in a mobile world that is increasingly visual and tactile. On social media and messaging apps, we consume primarily visually-rich content and interact with it through intuitive gestures. But on web browsers, we scroll to a link on a text-based page, tap on it, wait for the subsequent page to load, and then return to the text-based results only to do it all over again. We are not taking full advantage of the modern era of high-speed connections and touch-enabled mobile devices.

Given how poor the web-browsing user experience is on a phone, why hasn’t anyone done anything to re-think it?

We Have Grown Complacent

Most of us have a big blind spot when it comes to the mobile web experience — we’ve just come to accept the way browsers and search results work on our phones and don’t even think of their shortcomings as solvable. But there’s plenty of room for product innovation even when consumers fail to see any shortcomings. For example, most people didn’t know they wanted an iPod until the “21st century walkman” was introduced by Steve Jobs in 2001. Henry Ford gave us the car when we thought we just “wanted faster horses.” Even Google met with initial resistance because people had grown complacent with the results from search engines like Hotbot, Lycos, Excite, and Alta Vista. As Larry Page once recalled, “When we started with search, everyone said, ‘You guys are gonna fail, there’s already five search companies.’”

In a fantastic Wired article, Scott Rosenberg observed,

“As with so many other things, Google has shaped the way people view the tech industry’s pursuit of the future. As the top Googlers see it, change can be categorized in two ways: small steps and giant leaps — increments and moonshots. Such a world view is useful, particularly if you run a gigantic company that must satisfy billions of daily customers who want steadily improving service, while also exciting investors who want to see that you’re hopping the next wave. But this model omits a lot of the improvable territory on the tech landscape. It leaves out all those problems that we don’t bother changing because we’ve stopped seeing them as solvable. We’ve accepted them as part of the way our flawed universe works, and don’t even think about what to do to relieve them. Or we just never saw them in the first place. These are the blind spots.”

Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw past the blind spots, and their solutions worked because they understood “the why” behind the problems they were solving.

At the end of the day, why do we use web browsers? What is the purpose of a search results page? I believe their purpose is to help you discover and explore the web content you want, quickly and easily. The Internet is truly amazing in its breadth, diversity and depth, but we’re looking at it through a tiny porthole. Isn’t it crazy that the window into that world hasn’t got much better over two decades? Think how many millions of hours have gone into web development during the last 20 years! And yet, despite all of those advances, we are naively content with the limited view we have of that world. It is a blind spot. It’s a problem so obvious that we don’t take it on.

There Has To Be a Better Way

I was complacent and oblivious to the problems with mobile web browsing until just a few months ago. Now I can’t stop thinking about how obviously valuable it would be to get a better window into that Internet world. So I joined Cake to better connect everyone with the incredible ideas and information on the Internet by removing unnecessary friction and barriers.

The Internet is an amazing place. And while the number of mobile internet users has grown by staggering proportions, mobile web browsers have not — they’re still desktop experiences crammed onto a phone. Our behaviors have evolved along with our devices. Now mobile browsers have to catch up.

Join us in demanding something better.