Deciding which smartphones to support

Deciding which platforms to support and to what extent we should support them is a complex decision.

On the desktop, the vast majority of problems reside in how we should support Internet Explorer (IE) prior to version 10 (which is a very standards-compliant browser). Both IE8 and IE9 are still widely used but have numerous deviations from the HTML and CSS standards. Many features are not supported, and those that are are often buggy. However, since the problem has persisted for such a long time on browsers that have historically been the most popular, the open-source community has constructed many libraries that fill in the holes. Furthermore, the issues and workaround have been extensively documented on the web. Hence the problems are for the most part contained and controllable.

There are also differences and bugs among the “standards-compliant” browsers. However, in recent years, as HTML5 and CSS3 have stabilized, most of the issues have been fixed. In addition, users tend to use the most recent versions of these “standards-compliant” browsers, meaning that we don’t have to deal with the old buggy versions.

On the smartphone and mobile platforms, the situation is very different. Although most mobile browsers are based on the standards-compliant WebKit rendering engine and aspire to be standards-compliant in their Javascript implementations as well, the reality is that there are still a lot of differences.

On the smartphone side, the issues are almost exclusively on the Android side rather than iOS. By far the major reason why these issues persist is because the Android OS is very often not updated by the manufacturers of the phones. As with the desktop browsers, early smartphone browsers contained numerous bugs or lacked many features. Although these bugs were resolved in future iterations and were included in subsequent Android OS releases, a huge number of Android devices did not receive the fixes. The manufacturers simply did not bother to adapt the new Android version to their devices, or, due to the fact that they skimped on RAM to develop “budget” phones, they could not update them due to insufficient hardware resources.

As a result, there remain a huge number of Android phones on old versions of the OS, and hence on old versions of the browser; versions which contains a lot of old bugs.

Bugs in the Android browser tend not to be as severe as the bugs in Internet Explorer. They mostly reside in the HTML5 and CSS3 implementations, both of which were not stable in the webkit code at the time the old Android browser was forked. Other bugs are in “touch interface” implementation, which also was not in the original webkit code. However, since web development in the HTML5/CSS3 era has evolved to emphasize animations, feedback and interactivity, these bugs are very significant.

A table of Android OS versions per phone

To decide which Android versions to support, we use this table (Android端末一覧) on Wikipedia that lists every smartphone model sold in Japan and which Android version it is upgradable to.

We can observe that almost all smartphones that were introduced up till September, 2011 have only been updated to 2.3.4. Up till April, 2012, many new phones ended up being stuck at 2.3.4-6. Only after April 2012, just a year ago, do we see the majority of phones being upgradable to Android 4.0. Hence support for Android 2.3 is inevitable.

Just for comparison, the current version of iOS, iOS6.1), is installable on even the iPhone 3GS, a model that was first sold in Japan on June 2009. June 2009 is a month before the very first Android phone was sold in Japan and that could only be updated to Android 1.6.

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