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Summary:

Safari on the iPad utterly dominates tablet web traffic. Yet the experience of the web with tablet browsers is terrible, as users get an irritatingly predictable experience.

mobilesafari
photo: Apple

When iPads were first introduced in 2010, an Apple press release promised that the “iPad’s revolutionary Multi-Touch interface makes surfing the web an entirely new experience, dramatically more interactive and intimate than on a computer.” The implication was that the web via the tablet would be unrecognizable and vastly superior: hoverboarding compared with surfing on my laptop and doggie paddling on my phone.

Yet, here it is three years on, and we’re still waiting for that “interactive and intimate” browsing experience (and hoverboards, for that matter).

A recent study conducted by Onswipe revealed that iPads account for a whopping 98.1 percent of tablet traffic on websites. Despite this, the actual experience of surfing the web on an iPad is underwhelming at best and infuriating at worst. Simply put, today’s state-of-the-art tablet browsers, especially Safari, don’t do the Internet, the user, or the iPad justice. Apple wasn’t totally wrong: The iPad has proven itself to be a revolutionary device that absolutely has the potential to offer a transformative web-browsing experience. It just hasn’t yet. Which means there’s a gap in the market for an intuitive, immersive, innovative iPad browser. Whoever develops it is going to win big.

Safari is deliberately hobbled

As more and more of the services we use on a daily basis have migrated to the cloud, the web browser has become the computer’s most essential app. And when we surf the web on a computer, we encounter few obstacles. Though we may have to scale the occasional paywall or sit through an obligatory five seconds of an ad before accessing content, the navigational experience of a computer user is fluid and frictionless — as anyone who’s gone down the rabbit hole researching alpaca breeds or underrated Val Kilmer films at 3 a.m. can attest.

Surfing the web is far less pleasurable on an iPad. Visiting a site frequently presents one with a pop-up and a dilemma: Download the app, or endure the diminished experience of a website designed for another device. Safari is essentially a limited version of its desktop sibling – and apps almost always provide a better experience. (Or, as Firefox UX Lead Alex Limi has summed it up, it’s “kind of sucky.”)

Of course, this is sort of the point. It’s in Apple’s, or any tablet maker’s, best interest to make using (read: buying) apps preferable to visiting websites. Safari is designed to make using web-based apps on an iPad inconvenient, if not impossible. In response, most companies focus their mobile development resources on creating native apps rather than optimizing their content for tablet browsers. The result is a browsing experience full of flow-breakers. In short, on a computer the browsing experience is limitless; on a tablet, it’s filled with blind alleys and false doors.

Why web browsing still matters

There is an impulse among some to assume that the rise of apps – or, more sensationally, the death of the website – will eventually render browsers, or at least mobile ones, obsolete. While it’s true that more and more content is consumed through apps, and that personalization has shifted our approach to content from searching to getting, the average number of Google searches per day has steadily increased – by an astounding one trillion each year.

But even if we accept that the importance of mobile websites is on the wane, there’s no reason for mobile browsers to beat them to an early grave. There is plenty of room for resurrection, but only if we throw out desktop-based notions of what a browser looks and feels like. Freed of all the tasks and responsibilities that other apps accomplish, tablet browsers should offer an absorbing, engaging innovative experience. Further, they should evolve the idea of what a browser is and can be on a tablet. Take GarageBand, for example: The iPad version is infinitely more interactive and tactile than the desktop version.

I’ve mostly been picking on Safari. As the native browser for a tablet that accounts for 98.1 percent of tablet traffic, its influence is enormous. However, that’s not to say there aren’t more innovative browsers taking steps in the right direction. Dolphin, for instance, allows you to create your own gestures for various functions. And though there are any number of other browsers contending in the space, as of yet none has emerged as the standard-setter or must-have. Mozilla’s forthcoming iPad browser, Junior, which completely throws out desktop-inspired design and focuses on simplicity, could be a contender, but for now we have to wait and see.

What we’ve lost

As it currently stands, the shoehorning of hobbled desktop browsers onto tablets is forcing us to move from a browser to app-navigation experience. This is not necessarily a negative development, but we must carefully consider what we lose as our web experience becomes siloed, or, alternately, take into consideration in our app design how we can ensure and better enable the type of surfing serendipity that made web browsing valuable in the first place.

The web as we have known it was designed to facilitate the browsing experience – to be a boundlessly linked rhizomatic structure of hypertext. But we have quite willingly begun to fence it off as we have shifted our experience to the iPad and individual apps. Even worse, though, is that most of the apps and services that have attempted to fill the browsing void have only further constricted the experience of the web via the tablet.

Under the claim of “personalization” and making the browsing and discovery experience more individually valuable and meaningful, they really provide little more than constricting customization confined to picks of an editor or your social graph. Most of it is expected or retreaded.What is lost is the magic of blazing a trail from one page to the next, the anticipation of revealing the unknown that lurks behind the next link. Personalization shouldn’t be an either/or experience of web discovery, and neither should browsing on the tablet.

While we will continue to make strides in personalizing the web, and hopefully even enhancing the web experience on tablets, I’m also looking forward to a browser that lets me fall down an unexpected rabbit hole once in awhile. As long as there are alpacas and Val Kilmer movies, there will be surfers. It’s up to developers to provide the hoverboards.

Hank Nothhaft is the co-founder and chief product officer of Trapit, a personalized content discovery platform.

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  1. I actually think surfing the Web on Safari on the iPad is extremely pleasurable. The only problem—and it’s a big problem—is websites constantly demanding that you download their apps instead of just viewing their webpages. Occasionally, versions of pages optimized for the iPad are also terrible and slow. The iPad is fully capable of displaying the same pages a dekstop browser does, websites shouldn’t bother making iPad-specific pages unless they are really good at mobile Web design, and too many websites aren’t good at it. If I can get a “regular” desktop browser-type webpage on the iPad, I am rarely if ever disappointed.

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    1. Seriously.

      Browsing on an iPad is great. I’d say hands down the best browsing experience I have on decently designed sites.

      My biggest single complaint is exactly what you mentioned ( http://xkcd.com/1174/ ) and other things where people have done stupid things to break the experience (Google Reader; getting pushed to broken / badly executed «mobile» versions of websites; etc.)

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  2. I would use safari is amazing!

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  3. @jbrodkin Thanks for your comment. It’s not the web pages themselves that are the bother. It’s the awkward navigation of the native browsing experience. It is anything but fluid, and falls well short of the sexy vision portrayed in those compelling tablet concept videos that made the rounds shortly before the release of the original iPad.

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    1. That is simply because they don’t make the websites like they should… it has NOTHING to see with apple or the iPad or any other tablet.

      http://webdesignledger.com/inspiration/21-fresh-examples-of-responsive-web-design

      Read that article with examples, and view them on any smartphone, tablet or PC, every design will just look awesome and feel natural and all that… when you browse it.

      That is the perfect example that it is not the company that provides the technology. But the people that create content for it…

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    2. To each his/her own, but I’ve never once felt the Safari on iOS navigation is awkward *except* when website designers intentionally or unintentionally screw it up. The browser itself works quite well, and is certainly better than Chrome or Firefox on my Nexus 7.

      That’s not an anti-Google remark, I do 99% of my desktop browsing on Chrome and I love it. Chrome easily beats Safari for desktop browsing, but the positions are reversed on mobile, in my opinion.

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      1. I second that…

        Browsing in Safari on an iPad blows away the experience my Nexus 7 with Chrome, Firefox or Dolphin. Youtube also works better on iPad compared to the Nexus 7.

        It’s the companies that force web designers to not build compelling websites with HTML 5 and prefer to build apps to gather more invasive analytics on what the end user is up to. Don’t blame Apple and Safari. In fact I subscribe to the Financial TImes and I much prefer reading on my iPad with Safari than the app on my Nexus 7.

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    3. Really? Awkward navigation? How so? Give examples instead of blanket statements, please, because I find browsing on an iPad much more enjoyable than on any desktop browser…and it seems I’m not alone.
      http://scottsscripts.wordpress.com/

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  4. Please Write an article with basic knowledge of webdesign. It is not surfing on the iPad or another tablet that causes the pop-ups etc… but it are the web designers themselves.

    Maybe it is time for you as an author to go and read about Responsive Webdesign, and find some companies that did a very good job in doing so.

    Devices change fast, technology is hard to keep up with… But webdesigners and webdesign companies (not the GOOD ones, but the nephews or family who thinks they can make websites… or programming people that think they know how to design…) should follow aswell.

    So instead of bashing once again on an iPad / iOS or Safari… (and this once again on the apple blog, the only thing I read is bashing lately…) look further than just the technology.

    As I always was tought: Technology is just a tool to create something awesome. It’s how you use the tool…

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    1. Jim Courtney Sunday, March 3, 2013

      I agree Mike. Using Responsive Design has addressed my need for viewing my blog on any display size device. More in a post I just put out last week: http://voiceontheweb.biz/mobile-root/mobile-applications-mobile-root/voice-on-the-web-now-a-blackberry-10-playbook-app/.

      Responsive Design really the way to go.

      BlackBerry 10 has a “Reader” feature that also improves the reading experience for any wetsite on its very fast browser.

      In practice the BlackBerry PlayBook also has a better overall browsing experience than my iPad. .

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      1. scottjsterling Sunday, March 3, 2013

        Blackberry 10 has a Reader feature… hmmm… where have I heard of that before? Oh yeah, iOS for almost two years now.

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  5. Seriously? Not sure what beef the author has but web browsing using Safari on the iPad is an absolute joy and I much prefer it to browsing on the desktop.

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    1. Agreed! Browsing the web on my iPad is great. I hate when people write this, but… this author has no idea what he’s talking about. His arguments are flawed and his reasoning is nonexistent

      >Safari is deliberately hobbled
      No, it’s not, unless you count the exclusion of Flash. But that doesn’t even sound like one of your complaints.

      >It’s in Apple’s, or any tablet maker’s, best interest to make using (read: buying) apps preferable to visiting websites.
      Really? How many website-replacement applications are paid apps? Very few, if any, website apps aren’t free. And the $99 a year the developers pay is NOTHING.

      >Safari is designed to make using web-based apps on an iPad inconvenient, if not impossible.
      Bulls***. What could possibly make you think that Apple is deliberately trying to make websites hard to use? Seriously, that’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.

      I’m really quite tempted to leave this website for good. I don’t mind that the article disagrees with me; what bugs me is that this is a load of crap that has almost no connection with reality.

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    2. I agree the write seems like the guy that either hasn’t fully adapted to mobile or is too traditional to cut out the desktop/laptop.

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  6. This article makes no sense. I browse on an iPad without any issues. Some pages may not render properly on an iPad just as some page don’t render properly in some desktop browser but fine in others. Thats poor webdesing not an ipad issue.

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  7. «Hank Nothhaft is the co-founder and chief product officer of Trapit, a personalized content discovery platform.» 

    Um.. kinda important missing disclosure qualification: http://trap.it/iPadFrontPage.html «Trapit makes surfing the Internet on the iPad easy, beautiful, and fun.».

    And..

    http://validator.w3.org/check?uri=http%3A%2F%2Ftrap.it&charset=%28detect+automatically%29&doctype=Inline&group=0

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  8. You read this and then click on the author’s link to go to his company, TrapIt.. And what does it do?

    First page is entirely dedicated to pushing users to their app instead!

    Textbook example of how to make the web experience suck for tablet users.

    You can’t make this up. Please go and learn something before condemning the work of others.

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    1. Oh. My. God. That is actually hilarious. This guy is clearly biased; his company’s product is for browsing the web (with an emphasis on using the iPad).
      So basically, what we have is somebody writing about a problem (one that is actually not much of a problem at all) and he sells a product that supposedly helps with that problem. Can you say, “conflict of interest”?

      This article should have a little disclaimer at the top:
      “Editor’s note: The following article has little or no connection to reality. It was written by someone who has something to gain by convincing people that browsing the web on an iPad is a bad experience. Furthermore, the author does the exact thing that he criticizes, which is giving iPad users a landing page about downloading a native app.”

      Note to the editors: Please don’t remove this article entirely so that it will always be here for us to mock and laugh at.

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    2. Isaac Rabinovitch Sunday, March 3, 2013

      The article is a complaint that he can’t create a good user iPad experience without writing an app. How is it inconsistent for him to push iPad users to his app?

      My complaint about this article is the lack of technical specifics.What are the limitations of iPad Safari that make life difficult for web developers? Hard to evaluate the authors claims without that info.

      Even though I’m strictly an Android person, the issue Hank raises is important to me. Since the iPad dominates tablet web browsing, its issues affect us Android people too. And my biggest issue with mobile applications is that they are often implemented as downloadable apps when a mobile web site would work just as well. In fact, there are many web apps published for web sites that actually provide *more* functionality in their mobile versions!

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      1. “The article is a complaint that he can’t create a good user iPad experience without writing an app. How is it inconsistent for him to push iPad users to his app?”

        In a way, the problem is that the author doesn’t do this. This isn’t an article saying “Here’s what I see as a problem, and here’s my solution in the form of this app, and here’s the thinking behind that app.” That would be an interesting piece. However, it’s not the one published here.

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  9. Agree with most other commenters, author doesn’t seem to know much about web design if he thinks the fault lies with safari. Safari is not materially holding back any websites from delivering a better browsing experience on the iPad if they choose to do so.

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  10. hescominsoon Sunday, March 3, 2013

    chrome works perfectly for me on all platforms. The loss of flash isn’t an issue and frankly can’t come soon enough for that turd to die.

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    1. Worst. Article. Ever.

      An empty assertion (“Apple is intentionally crippling Safari”) backed up by a quote from a Firefox UX designer.

      I hope Om was paid enough by the guest contributor to make up for the credibility hit.

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