The Mobile Playing Field
Today, a large portion of site traffic comes from mobile
devices—namely smart phones and tablets—in addition to traditional PCs. Across
the globe, mobile devices now account for 12 percent of Internet traffic, and it’s scaling up faster than desktop Internet traffic. The
fraction of mobile Web traffic is sufficiently higher in nations with high
smartphone penetration (for example, 20 percent of US-based Web traffic is via mobile browsing). What’s more, this figure is expected to grow
significantly over the next 10 years, as smartphones evolve and mature in terms
of hardware and software and adoption picks up in South America, Asia and
Site owners have begun to take advantage of this trend over
the past several years and have primarily relied on native mobile apps for top
sites such as Facebook, Hulu and the New York Times. Moreover, up-and-coming Web services
such as Pulse, Flipboard and others have even taken to a
mobile-first approach, by building apps for iOS and other ecosystems before
building a Web site experience. Native apps allow developers to create unique
phone-first, touch-optimized experiences for users to interact with their
content to take advantage of features like camera integration, geo-location and
offline data storage.
Targeting users on mobile natively makes good sense,
especially within the US, where more than 50 percent of mobile users own a smartphone. While mobile apps offer site owners a way to connect with users on
new form factors, new ways to monetize across platforms and new mobile-scenario-centric
experiences to empower and delight their users, they offer an incomplete
opportunity for developers compared to the ubiquity and reach of the Web. There
are a couple of problems that affect a native mobile-only approach.
Problem 1: Cost of Supporting Multiple Platforms
Creating similar content and experiences across multiple
platforms is costly and requires site owners to choose platforms for which to
optimize. Additionally, this translates to a limited Web site experience for
users who seek out your content from other platforms, especially when you need
to prioritize your development investments.
Adopting a responsively designed Web site can help
address the investment costs and ensure that your users across all the latest
mobile operating systems are enjoying a consistent experience.
Scott Scazafavo, former vice president of product management
at Allrecipes.com, whose responsibilities included mobile product development, puts it
To do a decent job developing a native mobile application that
can compete with “best in class” offerings that are powered by live data or
content (like we have at MSN and also at my previous employer, Allrecipes.com),
it typically takes a minimum initial investment of about $250k to define, design
and engineer that native application, and then an annual maintenance investment
for that native app of $75K to $100K per platform to keep it evolving,
feature wise, to keep consumers interested and adoption numbers healthy. That
is over and above any internal work needed for design or engineering to create
and maintain the services (APIs) that power those products.
The approach we have taken here at MSN for our TMX product
with HTML5 browse-based products, with thin-shell apps to help deliver that
product into app marketplaces, in addition to mobile browsers, comes only with
a small incremental initial investment to what we do with internal resources to
create that app product. [That figure is] probably a $25K to $50K initial
investment per platform for each app, and a negligible maintenance cost
thereafter to maintain those apps.
Similarly, by using responsive Web design techniques, Clipboard.com was able to target many mobile, small device browsers like Internet Explorer
10 on Windows 8 and Safari on iPhone/iPad at half its expected costs
to develop when they began the project.
Problem 2: Fragmented Ecosystems
Even within a given platform, a plethora of device geometries
and sizes—as well as platforms—exist. This requires site owners to not only
design for near-similar display sizes and resolutions, but also to submit to
multiple app stores (Kindle store, Google Play and Nook store, all on the
Android platform). Managing multiple assets within the same platform adds
complexity to the support matrix. Fix a layout bug in your native app for the
Nexus 7, and you might have to fix it again for the Kindle Fire app. This means
all your users are not on the same app version, with the same feature set and
the same bug fixes.
Similarly (even within the iOS app ecosystem), top apps like
ESPN, Spotify, Angry Birds Space and the App Store itself did not correctly occupy the full screen, instead just showing users a black bar at the top and bottom of the
app. The addition of iPhone 5 required developers to ship app updates to
address this simple layout bug.
We’re also still at a stage where vendors are experimenting with new form factors, such
as the big screen. For example, more than 25 million Xbox Live users now have
access to Internet Explorer 10 on their living room TV screens and are
interacting with it not just through a pointer but also through more
human-centric mechanisms such as Kinect and Xbox SmartGlass. Today’s technical
decision makers are facing a fragmented and very volatile landscape of devices
that their users have integrated into their daily routines.
A Unifying Approach: Responsive Web Design
Responsive Web design aims to provide an optimal
viewing/consumption experience—easy reading
and navigation with minimum resizing, panning, and scrolling —across
the gamut of devices that exist in the market, as well as future-proof your site for those that are yet to come.
There already exist different Web tutorials regarding individual techniques
that help a site become more responsive. This series aims not only to provide a
unified approach to responsive Web design, it aims to impress upon decision
makers and developers the immediate need for adopting responsiveness as part of
their reach strategy. According to a crawl of the top 5,000 Web sites by modern.IE, only
about 14 percent of sites have some form of responsive design. It’s not
difficult to see why developers think it’s a daunting task to consider.
Take a look at Figure 1. You can see the relative
screen resolutions for the Web browsers on popular smartphones and tablets (the
devices are identified in Table 1). The device resolutions, as well as
ratio of CSS pixels to hardware pixels (a concept we’ll explain in part 3), are
taken from Wikipedia. (Each square
corresponds to 100 x 100 px of Web content, laid out at 1x optical zoom.)
Table 1. Key to Figure 1
| A || iPhone 4 |
| B || iPhone 5 |
| C || Samsung Galaxy S3 |
| D || Nokia Lumia 920 |
| E || HTC 8X |
| 1 || Kindle Fire, Nook Color |
| 2 || Kindle Fire HD |
| 3 || LG Nexus 7 |
| 4 || Kindle Fire HD 8.9 |
| 5 || iPad and iPad Mini (different hardware resolutions but
same number of CSS pixels, more on this in Part 2) |
| 6 || Microsoft Surface |
So is cross-browser, cross-device code the solution?
Traditionally, OS-specific apps have been able to provide more
sophisticated user engagement because they have access to valuable user
information, such as geo-location, offline storage and even custom font support
for customized interfaces.
However, modern browsers such as Internet Explorer 10, Google
Chrome (version 22), Safari 6 and Firefox (version 17) now offer the lion’s
share of these experiences as part of their support for HTML5 and CSS3. HTML5
is not your grandpa’s HTML, which was originally designed to let people encode
and deliver pieces of textual information across the Internet. HTML5 is
intended for developers to write rich Web-based apps for the twenty-first century.
Between HTML5 and CSS3, you get access to once-native features such as media queries, geo-location, custom font support, offline
storage and even touch events! This way, your sites can have a different look and layout on hardware
of different dimensions, provide users with location-aware services and even
provide a valuable experience when the user is disconnected from the Internet.
There are some common HTML5 myths out there. These include:
I can’t monetize HTML5.
HTML5 sites have arguably more
monetization opportunities than their app equivalents. App monetization today
includes app purchases (although most apps in the iOS apps store are in the
free to $0.99 range). This is probably the only way in which HTML5 site
experiences can’t be directly monetized. Otherwise, developers have a lot of
control over advertising and in-app or in-site purchases. More importantly, a
lot of apps tend to limit the amount of navigation a user can do. For example,
most reader and newspaper/magazine apps offer textual content and don’t provide
the "linky-ness" of the Web, which allows users to navigate to related content
while consuming the current Web page.
The Web site experience, when
responsively implemented, retains the "linky" nature of the Web and can lead to
a higher number of user impressions.
HTML5 cannot be offline.
HTML5 has a couple of different
solutions for ensuring that users have a great offline experience. First and
foremost, Web pages can specify which of their assets should be made available
to users when they are disconnected (using App Cache). This way, the user can still
interact with the page even while offline. Additionally, HTML5 can locally
store user information and input using Local Storage, as well as Indexed DB.
This data persists even if the user closes the browser and can be synced back
to the server at a later point in time when the user relaunches the Web page.
Check out the demo for this offline calculator. A user needs to be
connected to the Web only the first time he visits it. Subsequently, he can
access it offline. Moreover, the user’s calculation and results are stored via
Local Storage so he can come back at a later time and continue a calculation.
The Mozilla hacks blog is a great start at busting
some common myths about HTML5. It’s important to note here that native apps use
APIs that are optimized for device-specific performance. However, HTML5 and
CSS3 provide developers with tools to build engaging experiences across a
variety of form factors and ensure that you are not missing out on users
visiting from other platforms.
CanIUse.com is a great resource for understanding the available browser support
for specific HTML5 and CSS features.
Media Queries and Responsive Design
One of the new tools in CSS3 to aid in responsive Web design
is called media queries. Media queries allow you to offer your users
the same HTML content but enable the browser to detect the size constraints of
the device (in pixels) and layout the same content in a different, relevant
manner. You can grow or shrink the width of your text and image content,
increase or decrease the number of columns in your newspaper-style layout or
even hide pieces of information entirely, depending on what you think the right
consumption experience is for your user on a given device.
With a combination of media queries to dictate the layout of
your content, as well as browser detection to identify additional constraints
of the user experience (for example, if the user is interacting with a site via
Xbox 360 on a large TV screen), you can identify your users’ needs and deliver
the right experience for the current context in which a user has accessed your
content—whether it be to consume it richly on a desktop, interact with it via
touch on a slate or quickly skim through it on the go on a phone—and do so
gracefully with Web technologies.
What’s best, most modern mobile devices support HTML5 and
CSS3! This way, you can create near-native experiences directly within the
browser. Short of DRM support or access to certain device-unique hardware,
there’s no limit to the kinds of experiences you can offer through HTML5, CSS3
kind of cool experiences you can build purely with standards-compliant Web technologies.
It should be noted that using media queries alone to build three
different fixed-width layouts for your Web site can definitely help you target
common screen dimensions today (for example, desktop, tablet and phone).
However, this is not truly responsive Web
design. It does not provide an optimal experience for users
visiting your site with a device that has an intermediate width, nor does it
prepare you for the next wave of "it" devices with new geometries and
Build Once! Deploy Once!
If you choose to invest in your site experience, you can
form factors, from a small smartphone touchscreen to a large cinema display or
TV set. We’ll go into the implementation details later in the series, but
what’s great to note here is that you never have to choose which of your users
you want to delight with that cool new feature, or protect with that
In addition to simplifying your code base and support matrix,
this has the following advantages.
Benefit 1: Leave No Users Behind
Betting on powerful native apps for the top one or two mobile
platforms can mean that some of your users migrate to competitors if they offer
a useful Web experience, with more reach, on all platforms.
Benefit 2: Unified Ad Story
Often, when sites rely on advertising for revenue, they engage
with their business partners and sell them advertising piecemeal, based on
whether the users are experiencing the full-blown Web version or a limited app
version. Also, click-through rates for ads on mobile devices are less than
those on desktop PCs, in which case the extra cost of engaging with partners,
creating advertising assets for native apps and selling app-specific ad real
estate does not justify the additional gains. For example, MSN.com (which has
now begun to roll out a unified, media-query-based HTML5 Web site across its
international markets) can now unify its ad partnership story across all device
With a single HTML5 experience that responsively scales to
different form factors, you can cater to a single ad customer with the same set
of ad assets across a variety of devices—in the living room, on the work desk
and on the go.
Benefit 3: Upgrade Your Site Experience Directly into Your
Occasionally, you might still hit a roadblock where you want
to deliver a great mobile experience to your users that takes advantage of
their unique hardware—for example, you want users to get new content from your
site by shaking their phone. In this case, you need to access the device
Well, the great news is that you can create a native app by
applying a wrapper around your site content and only write the necessary native
app code to interact with the additional hardware on the phone. For example,
you can host (the responsively scaled down view of) your site content within a Web
view controller on an iPhone and just listen for the accelerometer event in
your objective-C native code.
This means that for any fixes/features that you build within
the Web layer, you don’t need to go through the trouble of shipping app
"So, how do I start?"
At this point, we have yet to talk about the “how-tos” of
responsive Web design. I’ll get to that in the next part of the series, but I
hope you’ve had a chance to consider the long-term benefits of a solution for
delivering your content to your users that consists of a single code base,
written in familiar Web technologies, with ever-growing support of open
layout and graphic support. If not, you can always look back at the quickly
increasing list of devices in Figure 1.
This article was written by Rahul Lalmalani. Rahul is a former Microsoft engineer who currently
freelances in app and Web development. You can follow him online at RahulJL.com and reach him @quasirahul.
This article is part of the HTML5 tech series from the
Internet Explorer team. Try-out the concepts in this article with three months
of free BrowserStack cross-browser testing @ http://modern.IE.