Categories
Responsive Design

Why Android Fragmentation is Irrelevant to Web Designers

We’ve all seen them: Pictures of an array of hundreds of Android devices accompanied by some snide remark about how “Android Fragmentation” is making it impossible to build and test anything for the mobile web. I’m here to tell you that’s not true.

You content doesn’t care about the size of the visiting browser. Neither should your designs.

OpenSignal runs a detailed an ongoing survey of all types of mobile devices and their latest report on Android Fragmentation is interesting reading. They have detected 18,796 distinct Android devices running 7 different versions of the operating system. This is contrasted with the iPhone and iPad which only constitutes 10 or so devices running 3 different versions of iOS.

The result is a vast array of different screen sizes. This graphic below from OpenSignal shows Android on the left and iOS on the right.

Diagram showing Android vs. iOS screen sizes sourced from http://opensignal.com/reports/2014/android-fragmentation/

For app developers this is an impressive challenge that drives many to only focus on specific Android devices or even just iOS. Be that as it may. For web designers and developers this graphic is irrelevant. Let me give you three reasons why:

The web has no fixed size

The worry caused by seeing the many available screen sizes of mobile devices is deeply rooted in the anachronistic idea of fixed-width web design. When designers moved from fixed media like print and broadcasting to the fluid design pane of the web they quickly applied traditional fixed-width approaches to the new medium. And for a while it worked because most screens had the same size and same resolution. With the introduction of mobile web devices this all changed and the web design community had to adapt.

In the beginning there were only a few sizes: First the iPhone (horizontal and vertical) and then the iPad (horizontal and vertical). Designers and developers still stuck in the fixed-width paradigm adapted by creating boilerplate media queries to target these specific sizes. These boilerplates are still in use and the device-specific media queries are being perpetuated by tools like Firefox’s Responsive Design Mode. Designs were still fixed, but fixed to a predefined set of screen sizes.

The problem, highlighted by Android fragmentation but most visible in the regular web browser, is that the web has no fixed size. There are an infinite number of possible screen sizes and we can’t simply design for a select number of them.

The worry over Android fragmentation in web design is rooted in a fundamental misinterpretation of the purpose of Responsive Web Design. RWD was never about formatting the content to fit the screen but rather displaying the content in the best possible way based on the device used.

The web is a content distribution network. It provides content to whatever device accesses it and lets the device decide how to display it. Our job as web designers and developers is to style that content to display in the best possible way on whatever device the visitor chooses to use. Responsive Web Design allows us to use media queries to place breakpoints wherever the content should naturally change to best fit the available space. That means rather than starting with media queries based on specific screen sizes and applying breakpoints for all content in a view, you start with the content and create custom breakpoints for each element or group of elements based on how they are best displayed in the currently available space. Make the content respond to the available space.

The web is universal

When you publish content on the web you make it available to web users. How those users choose to access that content is up to them. You have little to no control over their choice in device, operating system, access method, or browser. The challenge for web designers and developers is to provide the best possible experience to all these users. And that goes beyond media queries and varying screen sizes: Many users access the content through other means: Apps, readers, accessibility tools like text-to-speech browsers and refreshable Braille displays, and new technologies like wearables, integrated automobile solutions, and beyond. In the near future people will start asking why they can’t browse the web with their voice while jogging or driving their car. In short, the device used to access the web is not the issue. Universal access is.

The web has standards

The final nail in the coffin of device fragmentation panic should be adherence to web standards. Because the web has no fixed size and the web is universal we have established web standards to ensure the same code produces the same results across all devices, operating systems, browsers, and accessibility tools. Here it’s important to make the distinction between the design result and the communicative result. The purpose of a website is to communicate a message to the visitor. This can be done with or without visual design. Web standards allow us to write one set of code that conveys the content in a consistent way that can be accessed by all browsers. The end result – how that content appears – depends on the preferences of the visitor.

In other words if you are worrying about the specific screen sizes your content is being displayed on you are confusing the task of making your content available to the visitor – something  you have complete control over – with the task of conforming your content to their devices – something  you have no control over.

Design your sites for their content

When you start your next web design project, shift your focus to the only thing that matters: the content. Design the content to be presented in the best possible way regardless of the screen size and use media queries on an item-by-item basis rather than site-wide. And if you absolutely must have some fixed sizes to refer to I’ll give you the only three that matter:

  • The smallest vertical mobile screen at 320px wide.
  • The biggest horizontal screen you can think of.
  • All the sizes in between.
Categories
My Opinion

Apple vs. Samsung: Welcome to Monopoly

I’ve been watching the Apple vs. Samsung trial with a constant frown on my face, but decided not to say much until the jury came back with a verdict. I guess I was hoping the 9 people in the jury box would see reason and do something extraordinary. I was wrong. Apple won the case, Samsung got a slap in the face with as piked iron glove, and everyone except the lawyers will be worse off for it.

The Prime Objective

Let’s get one thing straight here: As I see it this trial was never about patent infringement. It was about competition. Apple is suing Samsung and has already or is going to sue every other manufacturer of Android handsets for some form of patent infringement in every country where these handsets are being sold because Apple sees any handset powered by the little green robot as a genuine threat to its self-defined rightful and uncontested seat on the throne of the Smart Phone Kingdom. In many countries these court cases have already been slapped down for being what they are – badly disguised attempts at monopolizing a market – but in this landmark case in the US, they walked away with a decisive victory, one that will define the future of the smart phone market and stands a good chance of ruining everything for everyone, Apple included. This was never about intellectual property rights; It was about Lust, Greed, Envy and Pride.

Innovation thrives on competition

Apple set out to quash the competition, and they did so with force. No matter how you slice it Samsung is eating away at Apple’s dominance in the market in a very big way and will likely continue to do so. In many countries Samsung handsets already outsell iPhones, and the numbers are getting closer in North America as well. Except now Apple has a carte blanche to try to knock down every new handset Samsung rolls out because it looks like a smart phone. And while religious Apple fanatics see this as a victory and are likely already skipping to the comments section to write a vitriolic retort, this is in reality a huge blow to everyone including Apple fans because this verdict puts a severe damper on innovation.

The smart phone market is thriving and evolving at a break neck pace. If you want to stay on the forefront you pretty much have to trade in your handset every 6 – 8 months now, and every new step in the smart phone evolution is enormous. The phone I have today makes the phone I had two years ago seem like a toaster. And that’s good. But if the competition lessens there is little reason for Apple or anyone else to keep the evolution moving at this break neck speed. Research, design, and manufacturing is expensive, and slowing things down when there is no threat of losing market share makes financial sense.

Now I know what you’re going to say crazy Apple Dogmatics: “Apple will continue to innovate, competition or not, because Apple is the pinnacle of technology and the reason why we are no longer in the iron age.” You are so wrong my friend. So. Wrong. The reason why Apple has done so well is because they used to do so badly. And the reason they did so badly was because they were not trying to beat the competition. For a while they rested on their laurels, and as a result the competition buried them. And that will happen again, except this time, because of all these idiotic lawsuits, there will be no one there to bury them, and we will be left with old and crappy hardware and little innovation. It may not happen right now, but we’re only one backwards thinking CEO away from dystopia.

Seven Deadly Sins

If I were a religious man I’d say Apple is making a valiant effort at perpetrating as many of the Seven Deadly Sins as possible. The trial started because of their Lust, Greed, and Envy: They lusted for complete dominance of the market, their greed drove them to want to take all the profits not sharing the space with anyone, and the lusted envied anyone who got in their way with something new and interesting. Like petulant children they looked out at the world and noticed not everyone was eating from their orchard. And rather seeing this as a challenge and reason to excel, they set out to burn down the robot factories.

Now that they won they have moved on to another sin, the original, and most deadly of them all: Pride. In true Apple fashion the win was immediately touted as proof that Apple are the only true innovators in the space and that they have every right to beat down the completion on legal grounds rather than in the marketplace. Which is amusing because when Microsoft pulled the same stunt back in the 1980s and 90s, Apple painted the rival as the new Big Brother.

Imagine that. Apple is now Old Microsoft. Congratulations.

Welcome to Monopoly

Monopoly is a fun game but a horrible reality. Apple wants a monopoly on everything, and for some bizarre reason I can’t wrap my head around Apple fans, especially North American fans, want this to happen. Never mind monopolies are pretty much the antithesis of free market capitalism and the American Dream: Monopolies are one of the things that defined communist dictatorships! And that is the path we are now headed down.

Postface

Just to clear a few things: (a) The decision of the jury was in fact the correct one in accordance with US patent laws. The problem here is that those laws make no sense. (b) I do see Apple as a driving innovator in the field. However, despite what they say Apple did not invent everything in the field – in fact most of what they claim to have invented is derivative work they patented. There is a huge difference. There were touch screen phones before the iPhone and tablets before the iPad. (c) I don’t have a problem with Apple products. I have a problem with their monopolistic anti-competition policies. To my eyes Apple is making every effort to be the only company to supply smart phones, tablets, and other devices. That is not good for anyone but Apple share holders. (d) I am not a legal expert, I am a technologist and logician. The opinions expressed here are based on my understanding of the marketplace and a logical breakdown of the arguments presented by both sides of the debate.

Further Reading

For a an alternate, but not all that different, view check out Apple Winning the Patent Wars Is Great for Innovation over at Gizmodo. While I take the glass-pretty-much-empty approach to this, Jesus Diaz sees the verdict as a demarcation line from which Apple’s competitors will go new ways and create new innovative solutions for the smart phone market. Jesus as I are pretty much in agreement, we just differ on the final outcome.