Browsing the web on an iPad stinks–and Apple likes it that way

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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