iMore hall of fame: Apple and Mobile Safari

When Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone on the Macworld stage in 2007, he teased it as a revolutionary phone, a widescreen iPod, and a breakthrough internet communicator. Back then, many people were excited about the idea of an Apple phone. In hindsight, the phone app turned out to be one of the least exciting things about the iPhone. Part of that is because we had mobile phones before. From flips to candybars to phone apps on Palm and BlackBerry devices, making phone calls from even a wide-screen, multitouch iPod was nice, beautiful even, but not really revolutionary.

Mobile Safari was, however, an absolute breakthrough.

Safari, and the WebKit project at Apple began in June 2001 when Scott Forstall, under the direction of Steve Jobs and Apple senior management, tasked Don Melton with creating a web browser for the Mac's OS X platform. Based on a fork of the KDE HTML layout engine (KHTML) and KDE JavaScript engine (KJS), Melton wrote about the experience on donmelton.com

For over a year, the internal name for the browser application was “Alexander.” I’ll write about how it got that handle another time. Not only had we gotten very used to calling it that, the string “Alexander” was all over the code and buried in its resources. So the engineering team wasn’t just curious about the real name, they were worried about correctly and completely changing the placeholder name at the last minute.

They also, jokingly, referred to it as iBrowse, before someone came up with the name Safari, which stuck. WebKit was made fully open source in 2005.

WebKit for iOS (then iPhone OS) was also the responsibility of Melton, who served as Engineering Director of Internet Technologies until he retired in early 2012.

Mobile Safari debuted in 2007. At the time Palm had Blazer, BlackBerry had their browser, and Windows Mobile had Pocket IE, and all of them stank. They couldn't render HTML properly. They couldn't render CSS properly. And JavaScript? Forget about it. Third party browsers were better, sometimes via proxy, sometimes by trying to implement their own rendering engines. But they still stank.

Safari on the iPhone changed all that. It didn't support Sun's Java, Adobe's Flash, Microsoft's ActiveX or Silverlight, Real, or any plugin for that matter, but as history has proven, that was a smart choice. It enabled better performance, longer battery life, and greater stability and security for all the native web technology Safari did support. Apple also created a new way to interact with the web, part of the overall multitouch interface in general, that used gestures instead of key-presses, to scroll with a swipe, to zoom with a pinch, to link with a tap. Apple made the mobile web usable.

It was so usable, so good, that it allowed Steve Jobs to take the WWDC stage just a few months later and announce Mobile Safari as the first (and only at the time) development platform for the iPhone, and web 2.0 + AJAX apps as first (and only at the time) apps. It wasn't anywhere nearly as "sweet" a solution as Jobs and Apple hoped or promised -- jailbreak app development continued, and Apple ended up releasing a proper, native SDK -- but it was powerful and flexible. It enabled a lot of phenomenal developers to make a lot of phenomenal software, from todo lists to social networks, utilities to games.

Apple even maintained a directory on Apple.com, showcasing the many web apps available for the platform, all made possible by Mobile Safari. (Last updated in December of 2010.)

The arrival of native apps in June of 2008 obliterated the short-term future of web apps, though some media properties still flirt with them. Apple has kept up Mobile Safari's development, however. They added Web.app so we could put web apps our Home screens, UIWebView so we could embed web pages and browsers in our apps, the Nitro JavaScript Engine so that even complex sites would still load fast, iCloud integration so all our web stuff is available everywhere, and they brought it to the iPad as well. UIWebView in particular, is used in a wide range of popular and needful apps, for good and for ill.

Mobile Safari's impact was so large, in fact, when the time came for Google to make both the original Android browser and Chrome, they went with WebKit. When Palm reinvented Blazer for webOS, they went with WebKit. When BlackBerry bought a new browser, they bought the WebKit-based Torch. When Microsoft brought mobile Internet Explorer out of the dark ages... well, they stuck with Spyglass but they were forced to up their previously stagnant game to compete with WebKit.

In a very real way, it changed the face of both the web and mobile, two of the most important technologies of the last decade. For all of those reasons, and in thanks to Melton and the WebKit and Safari teams, and all the developers at Apple who made it such an outstanding experience on the iPhone, it's fitting that the first ever inductee into the iMore hall of fame is one of the first, and still one of the most important apps in the history of iOS, and one crafted by the company that created the platform -- Mobile Safari.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, ZEN and TECH, MacBreak Weekly. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter, App.net, Google+.

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There are 2 comments. Add yours.

cardfan says:

Not to say that Safari wasn't important but it wasn't any more important than the other parts of the trio. It was that trio that started the revolution. The phone itself, high res, multitouch, wifi, ease of use, simple UI, etc. The ipod app, it brought in a new kind of ipod and basically revolutionized ipods. You could watch video on a pocket device in decent quality for the first time. And mobile safari, internet in your pocket.

Maps could make honorable mention. For the time it launched.

But anyways, it's like inducting parts of the OS. The hardware made it possible. The OS made the apps possible. It might be easier just saying iOS is your first inductee.