How to Make the Web Accessible to Everyone

Episode #033: Dan Appelquist, Director of Web Advocacy at Samsung and Co-Chair of the W3C Technical Architecture Group

How often do you think about creating a digital experience that works for everyone? Or, are you more than likely focused on designing an experience that works the best on the latest iPhone and fast connection speed? While there is definitely a population of users that does have the latest iPhone and a fast connection speed, there is a much larger portion of the world that doesn’t have access to either one. Instead, they’re accessing the web on a phone that is 4-5 years old with a much slower connection speed. That’s why we need to start thinking broader about how we design web experiences and really work towards making them accessible for everyone. In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk to the Director of Web Advocacy at Samsung and co-chair of the W3C Technical Architecture Group, Dan Appelquist, about the responsibility of being a developer advocate, how progressive web apps don’t make us beholden to the app store, and the importance of ethical web principles.

If you’re interested in learning more about ethical web principles, check out the Ethical Web Principles Document here.

Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. While the app store definitely served a purpose when it was first launched 10 years ago, the app ecosystem now holds brands hostage. It’s time for all of us to take back our publishing power and truly own our app experiences and progressive web apps (PWAs) are one way to make that possible.  
  2. We can change consumer behavior on the web. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can be done and it will happen faster if it means the consumer is getting a MUCH better user experience.
  3. The web must be accessible to all users throughout the world. This means we have design and build our web experiences to work on everything from the latest iPhone to a smartphone that is 4-5 years old.

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Episode Transcription

Stephanie Cox (VP of Marketing at Lumavate): I’m Stephanie Cox and this is Mobile Matters. Today I’m joined by Dan Alquist. He’s a web and mobile industry veteran and open web advocate. He was a “.com” CTO, and later a “.com” refugee working in the early days of the web. Later, he worked for European Mobile Operators helping to develop the standards and technology behind the mobile web. Now, he’s the director of web advocacy for Samsung Internet and also co-chairs the W3C technical architecture group, and is a member of the UK government’s Open Standards Board and the mdn product Advisory Board. In this episode Dan and I talk a lot about what he views as his key responsibilities as a developer advocate, why you really need to consider building a pwa, and the importance of ethical web principles. And make sure you stick around til the end where I’ll give my recap and top takeaways so that you can not only think about mobile differently, but implemented effectively. Welcome to the show, Dan.

In your role at Samsung, we’ve talked to Ada (Rose Cannon) and we got her perspective on what she’s trying to accomplish as a developer advocate. I’d love to hear what you’re trying to accomplish at the end of the day, and how you think your role at Samsung is meant to help developers do X?

Dan Appelquist (Director of Web Advocacy at Samsung): I think utilize the web to its full potential, especially across mobile devices, with a real strong focus on mobile. And at the same time, push new features into the web so that we continue to evolve the web and make the web a vibrant platform. I think there’s something very special about the web. It’s a platform that is part of the commons, it’s not owned or dominated by any one company or organization. It’s very international. Web standards are built in public and are subject to peer public review and peer review. A lot of the code is open source, a lot of the process by which new web standards are built and new technologies are built, is open. So there is a value there and there’s something also valuable to service developers, because actually building a web application that is a responsive web application or progressive web app, it can be a much better way to build an application that services the most users that you can. If you want to engage a lot of users then the best thing to do is to build a progressive web app or a responsive web application. Even governments like the U.K. government have guidance on this that actually says that users expect government services to work on whatever device or browser they choose to use, and a responsive website is usually the best way to do this. And that’s the kind of message that I think that we are in a very privileged position to be able to push out there. We’re not trying to sell anybody on using the Samsung browser in particular, but we are trying to get developers to embrace web development and to understand how to take advantage of the great new features that are coming to the web.

Stephanie Cox: So thinking about that for a second, do you think part of the challenge is that developers for such a long time, part of the reason we went to native mobile apps is because the functionality and the features of what you could do with a native app and the web is caught up tremendously, since the iPhone was first invented. But I feel like, and I love your perspective on this, there’s so many developers that just don’t realize how much the Web can do now and that’s part of the challenge that we face.  

Dan Appelquist: I think so. So, I do an awful lot of conference speaking and so does Ada and other members of my team as well. And I think that there are a lot of great web conferences and even mobile web conferences out there. But what I’ve found, sometimes we end up speaking to the web faithful. There’s a certain group of developers out there that are already bought into the idea of the web is great and the web is the platform that they want to develop for. And actually there’s a huge bunch of mobile developers out there that are really looking at mobile apps, they’re looking at other ways that they’re looking at react native and other kinds of approaches to build mobile apps, and their kind of, web really isn’t on their radar. And there are some reasons for that and I think they were probably good reasons to begin with. As you said, the Web wasn’t as capable as it is now. These days, you can do a lot more with the web and I think the restrictions of the app ecosystem are showing. So, the fact is that the app ecosystem is a kind of walled garden. It is not as scalable. And there are some really good examples of apps that were delisted from app stores or apps that are not given good favorable listings because they conflict with internal applications. There’s all kinds of really good reasons to engage users with web apps instead. But, we’ve gotten to a point where many mobile developers and, more importantly, product managers and managers tend to think in terms of: We need an app! We came across this a lot when I was working at the UK government, going back to that. Where we had to really roll out this guidance and hit people over the head with it and say like look, just because your manager says we need an app because I heard that we need an app, that actually might not be the best approach. If you look at the data, if you look at how easy it is to build a responsive website these days, and how many users you can engage with that versus building a separate iOS application, Android application or any-other-kind-of-phone-that-you-want applications. Then it’s clear that building a responsive website is the best approach for many types of services. It doesn’t mean that native apps aren’t the right way to go for certain things like highly responsive 3D games, applications that need to access the bare hardware APIs in a more sophisticated way, applications that need to access the network to do more in a more sophisticated way. The browser will always be an intermediary between the web application and the underlying hardware. So if you’re writing a racing game or a 3D game that really requires fast 3D graphics, it might not be the best thing. On the other hand we are also catching up with the work that Ada is doing on immersive web, where we’re really getting there with at least for some types of experiences being able to offer immersive 3D VR and AR experiences, even with web technology. So the web is catching up even in those spaces. 

Stephanie Cox: So you’re mentioning this idea of going into conferences, that you typically talk to the web faithful. How do you think about educating all of the other developers that aren’t going to those conferences, or you know, aren’t part of W3C? How do you get them to know, hey the web has so much more to it, there’s so much more you can do on the web, and you’re really missing out on a huge opportunity?  

Dan Appelquist: So I did a lunchtime talk at a company called Pivotal a couple of weeks ago and it was exactly this kind of crowd, really. Maybe half the crowd there had heard about progressive web apps, the talk was specifically about progressive web apps. But there were still a lot of quizzical faces and it was absolutely the right crowd to be talking to because it was people that really haven’t heard the message yet. So, that’s an ideal space to be in when you’re doing advocacy work because it’s clear that there’s a lot of people that need to be advocated to or that haven’t heard this message yet. And that’s where we try to put more of our energy. So I’m going up to Romania next week to speak at Dev Talks Romania. It’s not a web conference. They do have a web track, but it is a general development conference. I spoke at another conference in Austria last year called “We Are Developers” and, again, it’s an audience that is generalized. Yes, we are also speaking at web conferences and we also are, in particular, we’re speaking at a very cool conference coming up at the end of September called View Source which we’ve been collaborating on because we’re a partner in MDM, which is a very exciting initiative. Now MDM has what used to be called Mozilla developer network is now this cross browser initiative called MDM and we’re collaborating with other browsers to put that together, that’s going to be very exciting. And that’s definitely a web faithful conference, it’s going to be great. We also try to balance it out.  

Stephanie Cox: You just mentioned Progressive Web Apps a couple of times now, which personally is one of my favorite topics. Because I think they really are the future of mobile and the web. And as someone that’s done native apps for more than a decade, they solve a lot of the problems and challenges I think that you face with a lot of native mobile. So, how did you first get involved with Progressive Web Apps, what is your story there? How did you know this is something that you think can really take off? 

Dan Appelquist: Well, I started to become excited about the idea of Web applications that could take over and become more intrinsic applications on the device. Actually even before the even pre-iPhone days, we were talking about this initially. We were talking about the idea of mobile widgets that were based on very early kinds of HTML, very cut down HTML. 

Stephanie Cox: I was gonna say, I think that’s a really interesting point because a lot of people think the idea of progressive web apps have only been around for the last three years. But to your point it actually the concept of a web app started even before the iPhone.

Dan Appelquist: Oh yeah absolutely! 

Stephanie Cox: Steve Jobs said the iPhone initially was going to run web apps. 

Dan Appelquist: Yes. Yes. And that’s why they were one of the first phones to actually launch this “Save to Home Screen” approach. So, some of the first web apps that I remember that, well, some early web apps like for instance Financial Times launched a web app which was pre-progressive web apps time–but it was post-iPhone already, and they had some messaging in their application about, “here’s the Save the home screen button, use this button”. They included some metadata that instructed the iPhone, in that case, to save it to home screen as an icon when the user tapped that icon it would come up in full screen mode. Now, they had to build a lot of their own custom software in order to do that. And what Progressive Web Apps do is to really make that a lot easier and much more at the level where individual developers and small developers can take advantage of that same approach, and where it can work across browsers, right? So, I mean coming back to progressives, just one more one more stage in the history of progressive web apps that I should mention is that I was also involved in the Firefox OS project. When I was working at Telefonica, I was one of the operator partners of Firefox of Mozilla who were helping to create Firefox OS, and Firefox OS is based around the idea that all the applications on the phone would be a web app, including the dialer, including the contacts manager, all that kind of stuff. Now, even though that project didn’t go as well as maybe Mozilla hoped, and certainly as well as we had hoped, a lot of the concepts that came out of that are directly applicable to what we now call progressive web apps. So the save to home screen approach, the idea of background javascript threads, all that kind of stuff was born in some of the ideas that came out of a Firefox OS. So then when we, as a web standards community, came together in a workshop that I actually co-chaired and talked about how the current state of affairs for offline, which was HTML5 app cache, it was broken and nobody was using it and we needed a new solution. One of the ideas that came out of that workshop turned into what eventually became a service worker. The service work API being kind of the lynchpin of what we now think of as progressive web apps. And so, if I was going to define, or the way that I currently define progressive webapps today is, it’s everything you’re already doing if you’re building a responsive web application, plus adding offline functionality and save to home screen option for users to enable that application to function more like a native application. And really at its basic level, that’s it. And then you can add other functions and other APIs on top of that, which make it more sophisticated, and makes it even more able to take advantage of the device. But at the basic level that’s it and that and that simplicity enables it to be cross platform and cross browser. 

Stephanie Cox: Given that, why wouldn’t I want to build a Progressive Web App? What’s the challenge or the reason why I wouldn’t want to consider it?

Dan Appelquist: Well, you will not have as sophisticated access to things like the camera, for instance. So what I’ve got on my iPhone here, and I do have an iPhone as well, I’ve got Instagram loaded as a progressive web app and it works great. I use it most of the time. But, when I want to actually upload a photo, the UI that presents itself in order to take the photo or browse my photo library, that comes as browser UI, that’s not UI that is controllable by the application itself. So, in the case of Instagram, if you go back to the Instagram native app you press the same button, you’ll get a much more sophisticated live camera view and you can manipulate the hardware in a more sophisticated way. Now those functions may be coming to the web near you soon, but right now we’re not there yet. I think it has to do with the kind of application you’re building and the kind of functions and features you want. I think 90 percent of the types of applications that people are building these days would benefit from looking at progressive web apps first. And then saying, what can’t I do as a progressive web app? And if those features are really things that I need, then going for the native approach and that mirrors the UK government guidance that I talked about before. 

Stephanie Cox: I think your point around the features I really need is really critical because it’s one of the things that I hear when I talk to people about progressive web apps, their first reaction is, well, can I get it from the app store? Well, you can with Google, and Microsoft, but not with Apple yet. And they say, well, that’s where people go to look for apps is the app store. And I’m like that’s actually not where they go. 

Dan Appelquist: Yeah, I do think there’s a bit of common wisdom out there, which is not necessarily true. But also even if it is true, we as an industry have trained users that way and we can train them a different way. And one of the things I talked about at the Pivotal talk that I gave a couple weeks ago was, if you’re building an application, building an application isn’t just building an application, you’ve also got to figure out how people are going to discover that application. When I’m travelling on the tube here in London, I often see ads for new applications, like new food delivery applications. And when I see one of those ads and it says look us up on the App Store, I always facepalm because I know what the experience is like. First of all, you, as an app developer as a company, as a startup, you’re sending your potential customer into the hands of a department store and the first thing your competitor is going to do is OEM the crap out of their applications, so that when your user searches for “JustEat.com” or “Just Eat”, they’re going to find Just Eat’s competitors sitting right there. So, first of all, you just opened yourself up to competition and you don’t control that experience. If you send that user to the App Store or you do not control that experience, there’s a lot of friction there. You’ve just made it really much more difficult for the user to actually get your application. If, on the other hand you’re sending the user to a URL and URLs are a piece of the UI these days, right? Because you can have these great, very creative URLs like Galaxy.Store and stuff like that, that are very expressive and memorable. If you send users to a URL, then you control the experience. And even if your intention is to send them a native application, you still are in control of that experience and you can send them to the exact page of the exact application that you want them to install. Or even better, you can build a progressive web app and immediately start engaging with them, right there in the context of the web. So I think that’s a learning that we need to do, it’s a learning for developers, and it’s also that we need to retrain users and ideally stop putting these kinds of calls to action for “go find us on the App Store”. Replace that with the URL, replace it with a QR code, replace it with something else that goes directly to that Web experience.  

Stephanie Cox: Now you’re preaching to the choir, talking about some of my favorite topics, which is like progressive web apps, QR codes are not dead, people. Give them a chance!

Dan Appelquist: I mean, we actually just relaunched our QR code reader in our newest beta because we dropped it, but then we got so much customer feedback that people really wanted it back. So now, it’s back and we’ve relaunched QR codes. And I think that’s very cool because I personally am a big fan, but I mean, I’m a fan of them as a way to get to the URL because as a web technologist and as a web architect, the URL–even if it is a kind of fundamental architectural plank of the web, even underneath, HTML, javascript, http, all that stuff–the URL is something that underpins everything, and as long as we build stuff on top of the URLs, then we can we can take advantage of that web architecture that’s built on top of it.  

Stephanie Cox: Thinking about the Web for a second and where it’s headed. What do you think the next three to five years look like for the web itself?  

Dan Appelquist: Well, one of the things that we’re very excited about is the immersive web and you talked to Ada, probably, about some of that. That’s not only about bringing virtual reality and augmented reality applications to the Web. But it’s also about immersive 3D graphics. Being able to make it commonplace to start engaging with the 3D environment in every web page as we surf around the web. I think some of the other things that we’re looking at are payment–making payment more intrinsic to the Web. Web payment is something that Samsung has been working on with other players including banks. We’ve seen how powerful it can be when you can pay for something immediately from a web page using an on-device payment technology such as Samsung Pay, Apple Pay, or Google Pay. There are a bunch of these different kinds of on-device payment technologies and integrating them into the Web, bringing those to the Web makes it very powerful. I’ve seen these being used really effectively in political activism actually to give to candidates. Because if you’re reading an article and you want to give to it, or if you’re reading a call to action, and you want to give to a candidate, and you’re like walking around or you’re on public transit or or you’re on a train or something like that, you’re not going to reach around and look for your card and type in a card number and all that kind of stuff. So being able to use that on the Web I think it’s going to be a real game changer. Less exciting, but exciting for me, is the idea of better user workflow for Progressive Web Apps, better lifecycle management for them. So we’ve launched something called WebABK with our latest fit, with our latest version of the browser which signs progressive web apps and actually installs them as a case on the device, on the Android device. That makes them even more seem like first class citizen applications to the underlying device and cements this. Or really even lowers the difference between web applications and native applications, so I’m excited about that. I also am hoping that we as a web community are going to take some time to think about how the web is and needs to maintain its position as a more ethical platform. And actually, I just spent a lot of time in the last W3C tag face-to-face meeting that we had refining a document that I’ve been working on called “The Ethical Web Principles”. Which I try to articulate this, and it’s a bit of a manifesto. It includes things that we already know as being intrinsic to the web like accessibility is not optional. Security and privacy are intrinsic parts of the web. When I use the web, I can expect more privacy than using a native application. That’s another good reason to use the web, or I can be more in control of my privacy because I can choose a browser that enables me to install tracking blockers or ad blockers or that kind of thing. But also when we are bringing new technologies to the web should we be thinking about sustainability in terms of environmental sustainability, in terms of power consumption, should we be thinking more clearly about how the web enables marginalized communities vs. mainstream communities? And those are some things that I think that we need to do a bit more work on the web. And we need to understand as we’re bringing new features to the Web and the web is evolving and constantly bringing new features. How do we put the emphasis on this ethical thrust, which I think the Web already has the web server has the basis of that. So it’s about building on that. 

Stephanie Cox: So, one of the things that you just talked about a little bit, was making the Web available for all people. What do you think our biggest challenge is in really internationalising? So, like, is the experience that I have as a user in the U.S. is it’s still the same for someone in a third world country that doesn’t have the high speed Internet?

Dan Appelquist: That’s another thing that kind of fits underneath that umbrella of ethical principles, really. When we are designing new web technologies or when we’re designing websites, we have to think about the fact that your users are not always going to be people that are on the highest spec devices. It’s not only people that are on iPhone Xs and Galaxy S10E’s, it’s going to be people that are on third generation phones that are being resold or lower spec devices that are being sold at a lower cost. And that may be on lower bandwidth networks, even here in the UK. If I go to certain parts of the UK, like just the Scottish border, I’m not going to get a 3G or I’d be very happy if I can get an edge signal there. So it’s a mistake to not design these services for all, so that they can only be consumed in metropolitan areas where you can get ubiquitous 4G coverage. Now, we’re talking about 5G coverage. So graceful degradation services, graceful degradation and features that encode that approach as we add new features to the web itself, I think it’s really important. And then, understanding how web applications function when it comes to accessibility features, so incorporating things like Aria into rich Web applications in order to allow them to function better with assistive technologies. And also incorporating internationalization thinking. So does your web application work well when the user’s user has a right to left script? If they’re reading and used to reading Arabic or Hebrew, then they’re reading right to left. So all of these technologies are intrinsic to the web, but that doesn’t mean the web developers don’t need to do work and do testing outside of the bubble that they’re in. And everybody’s in a bubble, so we need to take it to make sure that they take advantage of them correctly and test with the users that are in those communities. 

Stephanie Cox: I have to send another thank you to Alex Russell at Google for suggesting I speak with Dan too. He was another phenomenal guest and I love the perspective he shared on ethical principles. Now, let’s get to my favorite part of the show where we take the education and apply it to your business. 

Let’s dive into my top three takeaways from my conversation with Dan. First, while everyone may be familiar with the App Store and has downloaded their fair share of native mobile apps in the last decade, a lot of people don’t realize how little control brands actually have in the app ecosystem. For starters, you have to submit your app to the app store for review and approval each time you make a major change. And don’t forget you have to build a separate one for IOS and Android and sometimes this requires separate development teams. And then you have to rely on your users to find your actual app in the app store, and most of the time it’s going to show up next to your competitors. So even if you convince a user to go to the App Store look for your app, you also have to rely on them selecting your app over someone else’s and then waiting for it to download. So let’s just say it’s not a frictionless process anymore, especially when you compare that to accessing a progressive web app what you can do if you a quick text, scanning a QR code, tapping with NFC, or clicking on a URL. 

Next, the web really needs to become more of an ethical platform and Dan has some really great thoughts on this topic. In fact, the Ethical Principles Web document he referenced in our conversation was recently published and I highly recommend you check it out on the w3c website. Finally, the web needs to be accessible to all users, and I’m talkin all users. This concept definitely fits under the umbrella of ethical principles, but I wanted to point out specifically because it’s something that we all overlook when we design for the latest iPhone or assume a 4G LTE connection on a phone. When is that most users around the world don’t have access to the latest iPhone or that type of connection speed. That’s why it’s important for us to think about designing web experiences that work on older phones and lower bandwidth networks. We should strive to create a web experience that works for everyone. 

Now, here’s my challenge for the week. Take a few minutes and read the ethical principles document I mentioned earlier. I think it’s important for all of us to start thinking and his mindset when we develop on the web. And make sure you check out next week from The Cutting Room floor episode. We will be back again with Ada and Dan talking about how they think we can improve diversity in Tech.

I’m Stephanie Cox and you’ve been listening to mobile matters. If you haven’t yet be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then be sure to visit Lumavate.com and subscribe to get more access to thought leaders, best practices, and all things mobile.