This blog post presents a review of the support for three web standards in mobile browsers: Geolocation, HTML audio and Media Capture. It is actually an excerpt from a draft paper about mobile web apps vs native apps that I am writing for the Nordmedia conference in august. I thought readers of this blog might be interested in the information, so decided to put it here as well. Any comments or corrections appreciated!
Locative media web apps like textopia or Anders Fagerjord’s MUCH project, rely on web standards for positioning and audio playback. A third capability that may be important for applications that wish to invite user contributions, is media capture – that is, the ability to record sounds and images using the device’s microphone and camera.
Positioning in mobile web applications is made possible by the W3C “Geolocation API” (Geolocation Working Group 2010), whereas media playback is enabled in HTML5 by the <audio> and <video> elements. These standards are currently being supported by the default browser in three of the four best-selling smartphone platforms – that is, Android, iOS and Blackberry.
In the default browser of the fourth platform, Symbian, these standards are not directly supported, but geolocation can be accessed via a framework called “Symbian Web Runtime” (WRT). Similarly, Symbian supports the use of Flash to play media instead of through the HTML media elements. However, the popular browser Opera Mobile does support these standards on the Symbian platform – so for users who are able and willing to install this browser, web apps that use these standards will be available.
The Media Capture API is currently to our knowledge only supported by Android devices, using version 3.0 or higher.
The table below shows support for these three web standards in the four largest smartphone software platforms. Note that we have so far not been able to verify whether the Media Capture standard is indeed being supported in the iOS or Blackberry platforms.
Table 1: Support for Geolocation, HTML audio and Media Capture in the default browsers on the four largest smartphone platforms.
|Geolocation||Yes (since 2.0;via Gears since 1.6)||No||Yes (since 3.0)||Yes (since 6.0)|
|HTML audio||Yes (since 2.3)||No||Yes||Yes|
|Media Capture||Yes (since 3.0)||No||???||???|
In the case of HTML audio, browsers do not always support all common audio formats. For instance, the Firefox browser for Android only supports ogg and wav files, while Safari on iOS does not support ogg. We have not been able to ascertain what audio formats are supported by the default Blackberry browser. However, looking at the table below and assuming that the uncompressed wav format is unsuitable for most mobile applications, it is clear that a cross-platform web app that should play audio in all common browsers would need to provide sound in at least two different formats – ogg in order to work in Firefox, and something else (for instance 3gp or mp4) to work in Safari.
Table 2: Supported audio formats in some popular mobile browsers.
|Android Browser||Safari (iOS)||Firefox for Android||Opera Mobile for Android|
One of the main arguments in favor of web apps rather than native apps is the ideal that a web app can be used by anyone, regardless of what hardware and software their device is equipped with. How realistic is this ideal when considering apps of the kind discussed in this paper – that is, locative sound applications?
Of course, such applications can only be accessed by smartphone owners whose device has some kind of positioning technology – primarily GPS receivers. It is hard to find reliable numbers for how many people have such a device. According to a report from ABI Research (2009), 225 million “GPS-enabled handsets” were sold worldwide in 2008. Tomi Ahonen estimates the “installed base” of GPS mobile phones to have been somewhere between 550 and 700 million devices by the end of 2009 – ca. 10-15% of all mobile phones in use.
Shifting our perspective from the phones that are already in use to the new phones being sold today, it seems clear that most new smartphones have GPS receivers. In the first quarter of 2011, nearly ¼ of all mobile phones sold worldwide were classified as smartphones, according to the analyst bureau Gartner (2011). In other words, around one in four people who have bought a new phone this year, has a device capable of running locative applications. In advanced mobile markets such as the Nordic countries, this share is likely to be higher. According to Norwegian industry figures, 50% of all mobile phones sold last year were smartphones, a figure expected to rise to 60% this year. In other words, we may expect that within a fairly short time, more than half the population will have devices able to run locative media applications.
However, any native app will only be accessible to a fraction of this audience – 35%, in the case of the most popular platform (Android). By contrast, a web app that uses the geolocation API and HTML audio will be available for two thirds (67%) of new smartphone owners (on the platforms Android, iOS and Blackberry OS). A further one quarter (25%) who own Symbian devices will also be able to access the application, if they install the Opera Mobile browser, bringing the total reach up to 90% of all new smartphone owners.
In other words, any native locative media application will target an audience which is less than ⅕ of the entire population, whereas a similar web app will have a potential audience close to half the population. That is a huge difference with significant consequences not only for the possibility to profit from commercial applications, but also for idealistic, participatory approaches. After all, if part of the benefit of web media is to enable a higher degree of participation from ordinary users, then it is essential to maximize the proportion of the population that can access the medium in the first place.
For locative media, the audience is already limited by geography. To limit this further by choosing a certain platform makes the potential audience very small. The price of adopting the app model is not just to forgo the possibility to reach a wider audience than the relatively small proportion of all the world’s mobile phone users who have an iPhone (ca. 2-3%) but also the web where any amateur can freely experiment and share ideas (cf. Lessig 2002, Suri and Sawhney 2008, Zittrain 2008).