The Verge's Mobile Web Sucks

Nilay Patel typed an opinion piece titled “The mobile web sucks” with “It’s going to get worse before it gets better” tucked in under it. He’s doing his article a disservice though by speaking so broadly, it should really be titled, “We can’t make our web site run well on Safari and still make money”.

He occasionally mentions Google, but it is very clear that this piece is about taking Apple to task. I’m no stranger to writing long, rambling rants about Apple, but I would like to think that my writing doesn’t suffer from the cognitive dissonance that Nilay’s piece does.

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

Peppered throughout Nilay’s complaints about mobile Safari are statements about how publishers have bloated web pages, but it’s up to Apple to make the bloat run.

And yes, most commercial web pages are overstuffed with extremely complex ad tech, but it’s a two-sided argument: we should expect browser vendors to look at the state of the web and push their browsers to perform better, just as we should expect web developers to look at browser performance and trim the fat. But right now, the conversation appears to be going in just one direction.

SPOILER ALERT: Apple, and Google, have been intensely focused on increasing the performance of JavaScript for years. They frequently boast about different benchmarks for compiling JavaScript, execution, and different tricks to increase the performance of repetitious code with just-in-time compiling tricks.

JavaScript isn’t even very good, it’s just ubiquitous, and no one has a solid way to replace it on the desktop, or on mobile. That’s the open web at work, pros and cons.

And that’s troubling. Taken together, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are the saddest refutation of the open web revolution possible: they are incompatible proprietary publishing systems entirely under the control of huge corporations, neither of which particularly understands publishing or media. Earlier this year, I called Facebook the new AOL; Instant Articles comes from the same instinct as AOL trying to bring Time Warner’s media content into its app just before the web totally kicked its ass.

LOLWUT, bro?

AOL could not compete with the open web because the open web was better. Web sites, limited as they were even then, offered diverse content, from a variety of sources, that AOL could not directly compete with inside of its walled garden.

Newsflash: This is still how it works! If your site is good, and people like going to it, guess what the fuck happens? People go there! No way!

Safari isn’t being deprecated for Apple News, publishers can even omit their site from Apple News. Facebook doesn’t have a wealth of content in their Instant Articles system either. It’s a negotiation here, not ownership. People don’t like junky sites, and they turn to not-junky experiences. It is up to publishers to compete since they are the ones in charge of the experience.

The part Nilay should take Apple to task for is how Apple’s own tools for accessing Apple News are web-based but do not function on iOS devices. It’s an iCloud “app” that consists of web forms. A missed oppurtunity for him.

He has a section where he compares his perceived experience (no measurements) on old MacBooks with the iPhone 6. He doesn’t actually check out what was loaded, or compare browsers. It’s a good thing he isn’t burdened with running a technology site because he might see some problems with this testing methodology. Namely, non-Retina, desktop devices will load different images and ads from his site. Also that he compared it to Chrome, which isn’t exactly an Apples to Apples comparison.

You don’t see much complaining about Chrome’s performance on Android, because Nilay doesn’t care to test it to see if mobile Safari and Android’s Chrome are competitive. He says it isn’t great, and that while other browser vendors can compete, they don’t offer competitive products. So … ? Apple’s fault?

Nilay abdicates responsibility for the performance, and quality of his site. Buried paragraphs down (and three ads down) in his rant:

Now, I happen to work at a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks. Our video player is annoying. (I swear a better one is coming, for real this time.) We could do a lot of things to make our site load faster, and we’re doing them. We’re also launch partners with Apple News, and will eventually deliver Facebook Instant Articles. We have to do all these things; the reality of the broken mobile web is the reality in which we live.

“Ultra-complicated, bro. Guess we’ll just do all those things I was complaining about.”

I am disappointed he spilled so much ink only to wind up holding these inconsistent thoughts together like two negative ends of magnets. His site is not remotely streamlined. This rant is 10 MB, kilobytes of which are the actual article, and it’s crammed full of JavaScript and iframes.

The Verge is supported by advertising, and venture capital money investing in what advertising money can be made in the future. Large, obtrusive ads suck up the whole screen as you scroll through in mobile Safari. As you scroll you also bounce horizontally because there is bad styling on the page (presumably a problem from an ad that loaded).

This is not Apple’s fault. This is literally The Verge’s domain.

Hoisting the performance, and experience of using their own site on Apple is a dereliction of Nilay’s duty to his readers. This should have been a fiery rebuke of walled gardens with the announcement of genuine effort to improve his site. Instead, it’s a petulant, poorly researched exploration of anxiety. There isn’t anything inherently wrong about that, as long as you aren’t running a site worth millions.

2015-07-21 09:00:00

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