iPhone-specific Web Development Misguided

Today, I noticed that A List Apart ran another article on how to get Web sites up to speed on the Apple’s iPhone.

First, a few points. As a Web developer, I’ve relied and will continue to rely on the strength of ALA’s articles time and time again. Also, I’ve written for ALA twice before and, as always, would love to write from them again. And I’m a fan of Apple products as much as the next Web designer out there, but the exposure of the iPhone is a little too much.

Yes, surfing on an iPhone is a rewarding surfing experience than say, I don’t know, every other cell phone on the planet. I’ve even mentioned before that iPhone’s browsing capabilities will completely eliminate the need to provide a separate “mobile” Web site.

Rather than promoting the new hotness, though, we need to have more information about creating rich, yet salient surfing experiences for other devices besides the iPhone.

One of the main arguments I picked up from Joe Clark’s book, Building Accessible Websites, for the development of accessible Web sites is the desire to grab the largest audience possible.

Apple recently sold its first million iPhones. Yet, there are an estimated 37 million Americans with sensory and physical disability between the ages of 16 to 64.

If only ten percent of these 37 million people with disabilities surf the Web on an assistive technology, their numbers are 300% greater than every iPhone sold.

Looking at those numbers, focusing on iPhone Web site optimization seems like an imbalance in priorities. This is perceived overkill especially when you know the dirty little secret about optimizing a Web site for an iPhone: If a Web site is built on Web standards like XHTML+CSS, your Web site will be viewed on the iPhone without too much worry.

The point is that I believe that there are more important issues at hand for making sure our Web sites can be seen by an Internet-enabled device other than a Web browser rather than forcing every other electronic doodad to have a Web browser on it.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think you can over-sell the importance of Web standards, but reselling them is another thing altogether. If your Web site is geared to run on assistive technologies like screen readers, hand wands, eye tracking, voice recognition, or braille displays, the odds are that you’ve opened your site up to more of an audience than the iPhone crowd.

There’s no reason we can’t have both a great surfing experience on an iPhone as well as one on assistive technologies. I’m just asking for more balance.

12 thoughts on “iPhone-specific Web Development Misguided

  1. I couldn’t agree more, and to make matters worse, there are plenty of businesses that can barely get their act together on their primary web property who want to go and develop one specifically for the iPhone. However, the accessibility issue is, in my opinion, a much more elegant way to prove the point. Great post.

  2. Good point, Chris. I know Apple and ALA haven’t specifically promoted any kind of exclusionary web dev practices for the iPhone, but I assume you might be referencing frustrations with iUI, the development library for iPhone. While I think it’s a great early resource, I must admit I am also frustrated, not only with its lack of accessibility support, but with its current inability to hold a consistent interface in any brower other than an iPhone. Fortunately, I expect this will change once other concerned citizens have time to contribute to the open source project.

  3. I echo Garrett’s comments. My company is salivating over the chance at making our mobile offerings “iPhone ready” yet we can’t complete the simple tasks, like, say, making our content screen readable. Sometimes logical priorities get thrown out the window when coolness takes over I guess.

  4. I think there should be more balance between articles about global warming and Lindsay Lohan’s drinking problem, too.

    Sadly, I think don’t think CNN’s bottom line agrees with me. 🙂

  5. This is a great post and thanks for putting it out there.

    I think Apple needs to do a bit more to make all of their handheld devices, including the iPhone more accessible to people with a variety of access needs. They continue to slowly push access deeper into Mac OS and one would hope that at least some of those system level access features will make it into devices running Mac OS other than computers.

  6. I agree as well and would like to see folks focus less on iPhone-specific web development, and more on Context/ScreenSize-specific web development for mobile devices. Eventually, the other phone makers are going to catch up and we need to be developing sites that work for them too.

  7. Hi Christopher,

    Great post, and thanks for raising this issue. We (read: the A List Apart staff) had this same discussion before running the Craig’s articles. We came to the conclusion that we’d run it, not to say that designers/developers should optimize all of their sites for the iPhone, but that if you were already interested in learning more about it, we would present a great resource for it.

    If only ten percent of these 37 million people with disabilities surf the Web on an assistive technology, their numbers are 300% greater than every iPhone sold.

    Very true. However, for certain groups, users that browse with Internet Explorer may be in the minority, but that doesn’t mean designers and developers should stop writing/reading about how to correct CSS bugs for IE. I don’t agree that, just because iPhone users are in the minority, we shouldn’t be aware of how to cater to that market.

    I’m just asking for more balance.

    100% agreed, and that’s exactly why we published the article. We’ve written a lot about accessibility, and we won’t stop either, but we’ll also continue to publish other topics as well.

    (For the record, I certainly don’t take this post as bashing ALA or the articles on ALA, but I do want to voice my opinion about it.)

  8. Josh Lane makes an excellent point. If you’re doing iPhone specific development right, you’re using standards, etc. The “problem” lies in that other mobile browsers don’t support the same level of standards the iPhone does. That will change.

    The argument for *mobile* specific development is clear: it’s about a better user experience and addressing a mobile context. I think in the long run it’s probably not a good idea to optimize a mobile-specific site or application for an iPhone. However, if there is sufficient reason to do so, mobile-specific development can make great improvements in the overall experience. For many, that experience is worth it, and it’s something that needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. There is, and will never be, a hard and fast rule there, nor should there be.

    (I’m purposefully avoiding the accessibility issue here as when it comes to mobile it’s pretty sticky and undefined. I wouldn’t know where to start with that as I’m not exactly sure how it’s even related to the issue here with iPhone- or mobile- specific development. Not a knock or even a disagreement, I just don’t get the points made there.)

  9. @GarrettDimon and @EricEllis: That’s the way things go in business. Whatever the new hotness is gets the attention (and thus ALA’s recent articles), even if there are other priorities that need the resources.

    Most stake holders might be relieved to know they can make their site sizzle on the iPhone by paying the same for a Web site that works in a PC’s Web browser. My suggestion would be to tell your clients or managers, “yes, let’s make it iPhone compliant,” and continue to funnel resources into Web-standards development stating that iPhone “accessibility” is a byproduct of modern Web development. Whether that works or not is another story, but might be worth a try.

    @DanMall: Believe me when I tell you as a Web developer, I appreciate ALA has published numerous articles on accessibility (I even wrote one of them) and will continue to publish more.

    Looking through the archive, I haven’t found an accessibility article written in the last couple of years that focuses on assistive technologies like hand wands or braille displays–technologies that have been around for years. I can, though, find two articles on ALA about the iPhone in the last two weeks.

    I’m an ALA reader and I’m not looking to dictate ALA’s editorial calendar. I would, though, like to see articles written on other topics that can make a bigger impact on increasing a site’s potential audience or uplifting their surfing experience.

  10. I can, though, find two articles on ALA about the iPhone in the last two weeks.

    No, you can find one two-part series, Chris. There’s a difference.

    It’s actually one long article, broken in two due to concerns about length.

    That’s why “both” articles have the same author (Craig Hockenberry), and the first article includes the words “PART I” in its title, while the second article calls itself “PART II.”

    If we start running lots of articles about iPhone optimization, then your argument will be well taken. But I doubt we’ll run any more. We’ve essentially published *ONE* long article on this subject (broken in two parts). One long article is all the subject requires.

    By contrast to this one article on development issues vis-a-vis the iPhone, we have published dozens of articles on accessibility and will continue to do so.

    Buried in your post is a fair thought: some kinds of assistive technology might impact design decisions (like the big finger impacts iPhone use); an expert article on assistive technology’s impact (if any) on design would not be amiss in A List Apart.

    Thanks!

  11. I do understand the need for addressing accessibility issues in order to better enumerate / define and educate the masses when it comes to the current state of assistive technologies. Yet, your post appears pointed at A List Apart and its staff as the number one offender when it comes to sites that don’t publish enough on accessibility issues. Is ALA alone in the standards / web / best practice publishing fields… I think not. There are hundreds of quality sites (some commercially sponsored) that provide tutorials / articles on web development. Yet, not one of them is addressed here as contributing to the problem.

    Some of your points are well founded, but I think the finger needs to be pointed at more than just one resource when it comes to the responsibility of education. As a matter of fact, I was quite surprised to see your own site sports very little in the area of posts relating to assistive technology (even lacking a post category on the subject). Don’t you as an obvious advocate of accessibility issues have an obligation to provide information on your site regarding these technologies, much the same way you profess ALA should?

    On to other things…

    The iPhone, in my opinion, is not really the issue. Sure there is a lot of hype surrounding the “new hotness” (a term unfavorably lifted from ALA’s article description), and I think it deserves a lot of it for bringing decent browsing capabilities to the mobile browser platform. It’s about damn time! But bashing the iPhone about accessibility issues when it has been out for what… two / three months is a lot like knocking on Microsoft or Mozilla’s door and thrashing them for not being completely accessible / compliant in the first couple releases of their browsers. It took time for them to come along (and we are still waiting a lot of fronts for those browsers) as it will take the iPhone to develop its support schema.

  12. Very nice article I agree wholeheartly. The only thing that I need to do occassionally is to adjust some smaller stuff for the iPhone – like rollovers that provide functions/content (yes some say its a nono – I don´t agree with them – teasers are great to do with rollovers for example). And a big issue is with fixed positioning – something that I personally like to use (nonmoving click targets are great!). Other then that I don´t see why the phone needs special consideration at all – thats why they made such a good job on the interaction design/zomm features etc pp.

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