One of the promises of the original iPhone was a full web browsing experience and it delivered–issues and all. It’s arguably the feature which eventually led to the crumbling of BlackBerry, among other things. So why do my fingers cramp each time I look for that compass icon? Because we no longer need a desktop-like web browser on our phones, cramming a bunch of tiny little buttons all over. If iOS 7 can get rid of so many small aesthetic cues that were needed to transition millions of people onto mobile devices, then maybe it’s time to really change up the mobile web browser.
We don’t need mobile Safari in the same way we did back in 2007. Then, it made sense to have a simulacrum of a full browser. But today, opening mobile Safari–with its thin address bar at the top of the screen and the tiny touch targets like refresh and stop buttons–feels cramped and awkward by today’s mobile app standards. Even on a “small” screen like that of the original iPhone 4, there’s plenty of room going to waste. Chrome on iOS isn’t much better either with the same basic offenses. The solution is to figure out what most people are using their mobile browser for and optimize the experience. Full browsing is nice, but only as an alternative–today many of the sites we visit most often are fully responsive and adjust to mobile.
On a phone, web browsing isn’t browsing at all–it’s much more goal oriented. Typically you already know where you want to go or what you want to search for when you open the browser on your phone. The address bar should be front and center, and it should be big enough to tap into easily.
There have been some improvements, sure. Safari and Chrome for iOS both use left and right swipes to move forward and back between pages, making the button bar less crucial; it now hides out of view in mobile Safari while you’re reading a page.
The best example of an accessible mobile web browser available now is probably Google’s iOS search app. With a big search box front and center every time the app opens, it feels like the direction mobile browsers should be moving, but this interface is totally wasted in a dedicated “search” app. Bring it to Chrome for iOS, Google! There’s also quick access to voice search and visual search, giving the search app a great first screen. Apple should copy it.
For whatever reason, the focus on mobile browsers today seems to be on bringing desktop features like ad-blocking or tab-syncing to the phone. But the interface is not done. Just because things are fine doesn’t mean they can’t get better through iteration. A lot better. Is it time for some brave developer to build new, usable mobile browser?