Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

Will Apple’s New TV Feature a Browser?

The rumor mill has been going full tilt with expectations that Apple is going to release a new TV product either this year or next. The rumors have been accelerated by Steve Jobs declaring that he had “finally cracked” how to make a usable TV.

If we take Steve Jobs at his word, then a question for web developers to ponder is whether or not this new TV will include a browser. Let’s take a look at some of the arguments for and against including a browser.

Reasons why a new Apple TV will not include a browser

  • The current Apple TV does not have a browser.
  • Browsers on TVs have not had the best user experience and adoption has been low.
  • When announcing the latest Apple TV, Steve Jobs said, people “don’t want a computer on their TV. They have computers. They go to their wide-screen TVs for entertainment. Not to have another computer. This is a hard one for people in the computer industry to understand, but it’s really easy for consumers to understand. They get it.”

Reasons why a new Apple TV might include a browser

  • Apple TV is built on top of iOS and has the WebKit rendering engine built in.
  • People jailbreaking their Apple TV have been able to get access to the browser.
  • There is a good chance that an App Store for Apple TV would be one of the major mechanisms for getting new content to the Apple TV.
  • If Apple TV had an App Store, support for embedded webviews would be necessary as many apps these days combine native and web components including Apple’s own iTunes, Apple Store, and App Store apps.
  • If embedded webviews and an App Store are available, someone will build a browser absent a specific policy from Apple against browsers. Such a policy seems unlikely as it would be difficult to enforce and cause an unnecessary backlash.
  • If others are going to create browsers for the platform, it makes sense that Apple would want to define the default browsing experience by shipping Safari on the platform.
  • Steve Jobs has a history of dismissing something until Apple has solved how it wants to implement it (see: multi-tasking in iOS).

Why worry about what Apple will do?

It wasn’t too long ago that people believed no one wanted to use the web on their mobile phones. The iPhone proved that to be wrong.

Now we hear similar refrains about how no one uses the web on their TV. If Apple releases a new TV and they include a browser, we may again see a shift in user behavior that would disprove those assertions.

If that happens, the challenges of building web pages will again increase as we all start to consider how to address a new form factor that we’ve long ignored.

There is a mobile web…at least for advertisers

When I wrote about the business challenges of responsive web design (RWD), advertising was a minor point in my mind. I was more interested in the challenges of analytics and search engines.

But since I wrote the post, the idea that advertisers want to target mobile web differently than desktop web keeps coming back into my thoughts.

Last year there was a bit of debate about whether or not there is such a thing as the mobile web. I wrote about this in my post On My Context. There are links in that post to much of the online conversation at the time.

I don’t want to rehash all of that conversation. Instead, I want to highlight one paragraph from my post on the business challenges of RWD:

Sometimes advertisers just want to advertise on one form factor and not another. App developers who want to drive app store purchases may not be interested in advertising on desktop. An advertiser interested in location-based advertising is also unlikely to consider responsive advertising desirable.

I wrote that paragraph without thinking much about it. It seemed obvious then and even now I find it hard to refute.

When it comes to advertising, it seems clear that there is value in distinguishing the mobile web from the desktop web (and yes, the tablet web, the tv web, etc.).

Whether or not the way advertisers look at the mobile web can or should influence the way web site publishers look at the web is a separate question. A question that I keep finding myself pondering without resolution.

Responsive Web Design Business Challenges

During the Future of Mobile Web summit that dotMobi sponsored, I brought up a series of responsive web design (RWD) challenges that I’ve been thinking about that have little to do with technical implementations. John Leonard from dotMobi commented that he hadn’t read any blog posts about them. Time to remedy that.

Search Engine Optimization

Google, Bing and Yahoo all have different search bots for mobile. Google’s recommendations on how to make sites mobile friendly are all based around building separate sites and then ensuring that the Google mobile bot is redirected to the mobile version. Matt Cutts has talked about this in a video answer and Google has gone so far as to describe how you should redirect the Google mobile bot in some detail.

What does this mean for sites using responsive web design? Honestly, I don’t know. Nor does anyone else it appears. There is some question about whether or not mobile SEO is even worth pursuing.

But it is worrisome. Google recently announced that mobile website optimization now factors into mobile search ads quality. I’ve seen no indication that Google is considering responsive web design in its definition of mobile optimization. The announcement linked to several case studies and articles illustrating separate sites as the approach.

This is probably a problem with the search engines and not with responsive web design as a technique, but if a company relies on search engine traffic for revenue, it likely won’t matter who is to blame.

Advertising

There’s been a lot written about the difficulty of incorporating advertising into responsive design. Most of the focus has been on the fact that ads aren’t designed to be responsive breaking responsive layouts.

But there is another more structural issue: sometimes advertisers just want to advertise on one form factor and not another. App developers who want to drive app store purchases may not be interested in advertising on desktop. An advertiser interested in location-based advertising is also unlikely to consider responsive advertising desirable.

Will responsive web designs be able to participate in the growing mobile advertising opportunity?

Analytics

Most web analytics tools that support mobile provide an option to use a server side way of tracking instead of tracking via JavaScript. This is offered because many older devices either don’t support JavaScript or support it so poorly that using JavaScript-based tracking code is problematic.

Bryan and Stephanie Rieger have talked about how in their experience switching to the server-side code will show a lot more mobile traffic from a wider variety of devices than if you stick to the JavaScript version.

The problem is that you can’t run both the JavaScript and the server-side (mobile) variant on the same page. The analytics vendors recommend using the server-side code on your mobile site and the JavaScript one on your desktop site because the JavaScript version has a lot more data and features than the server-side one.

Sites using responsive web design will need to choose between more accurate data about the total mobile traffic (server-side tracking code) or deeper information about a small set of visitors (JavaScript tracking code).

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs)

On a responsive web design that takes care to provide only the assets that are appropriately sized for the device requesting the page, the images will vary based on the device. This causes problems with content delivery networks that have become accustomed to being able to cache a single asset for all devices or at worst caching a desktop and a mobile version of the asset.

As Ronan Cremin put it, CDNs may now need to cache different images based on the entire spectrum of devices accessing a site. FWIW, depending on how they are implemented, this can be a problem for separate sites as well.

One way in which RWD does not resemble the transition to standards

The move towards responsive web design has been compared by many to the changes that happened when web design went from being table-based to using web standards and CSS layouts. The Boston Globe’s new site has been compared to the impact that the ESPN and Wired redesigns in proving the value of web standards.

It may be that my faulty memory, but I don’t remember a similar list of potential drawbacks from a business perspective to making the change to CSS-based layouts. If anything, things standards-based layouts had great business benefits because of the increased semantic markup leading to better search rankings and the leaner code helping with page performance and bandwidth costs. Yes, like responsive web design, retraining staff and changing infrastructure could be a major undertaking, but there wasn’t concern that making a change would negatively impact search rankings or make analytics more difficult.

And I honestly don’t know how big of a problem any of these things are with the exception of the analytics problem which seems clearly to be a pickle. It may be that search engine rankings aren’t impacted at all. But the fact that we don’t know seems like something that should be sorted out and considered if those things are critical to the success of a given project or client.

And to be 100% clear, I’m not saying people shouldn’t do responsive web design. Even if you were to build separate sites, you should still do responsive web design for the separate sites.

I’m simply saying these are challenges and concerns that I don’t think we’ve currently got good answers for.

Mobile web workshop in New York — We need your help

Lyza and I are giving a mobile web workshop next week at WebVisions NYC. We’re preparing an outstanding workshop for web designers and developers who want to learn how to build for mobile devices. We’re very excited about the workshop. It’s going to rock, but we need your help!

But we’ve got a problem. We came up with a fun theme (Zombie Apocalypse!) to make the workshop interesting, but we’ve heard people were reluctant to register for the workshop because they didn’t get it. :-(

Since we heard about the registration problem, we’ve lept into action:

  • We’ve rewritten the workshop description so it is clearer what people will learn at the workshop.
  • We’ve posted a fun preview of the talk. The preview made me giggle multiple times when I read what Lyza had wrote.
  • We’re here asking for your help.

We need your help getting the last minute word out. If you can take a moment to share the event, we would appreciate it. Particularly if you know people in New York who would benefit, we would be grateful if you pass the word onto them directly.

Zombie Apocalypse of Devices Preparedness 101 Workshop Preview

And of course we have discounts to share

WebVisions has provided us with a way to save 40% on conference passes. There are two options:

  1. Save 40% off a conference pass, get a FREE pass to Thomas Phinney’s “Web Typography Best Practices” workshop ($250 value) and a 60-day unlimited WebINK account (register at http://wvnyc-webink.eventbrite.com/), OR
  2. Save 40% on conference passes to WebVisions NYC and receive a FREE Workshop pass ($250 value) to Kevin Hoyt’s “Web Standards Playground” (register at http://wvnyc-adobe.eventbrite.com/).

I honestly had to read that a few times to make sure I understood the deal correctly. Seriously, 40% off and you get a free workshop? My guess is that Adobe and WebINK are helping sponsor the discounts which is pretty cool way to get into a workshop and save money.

WebVisions is a fantastic event

WebVisions is new to New York, but it has been going on in Portland for several years now. It always has fantastic speakers and the line up in New York is no different. Please help us make the event a success.

Thanks in advance for spreading the word. We greatly appreciate it and promise we’ll be less cutesy and more descriptive in our workshop abstracts from now on. :-)