Smartphones' power, or lack thereof

Most people don't have an octo-core smartphone

Drupal 8 just got out and many people are looking at it to power their decoupled website. There is a lot of noise about Angular, Ember, and React. Somewhere along the way, we started to forget what mobile first meant. All of this makes right now the perfect time to take a bad decision. After my Frontend Thunderdome session at DrupalCamp Vienna I wanted to contribute to the discussion and highlight a recurrent issue with blog posts popping up about frameworks and mobile devices.

TL;DR: In articles discussing mobile web performance there is usually a variation of: users probably don't have a device as powerful as what I used. Imagine how bad it'd be with cheap hardware!. It's lazy, there is no excuse to omit low-spec smartphone testing.

By nature those devices are dirt cheap. $50 will get you a 2 × 1 GHz CPU and 512 MiB RAM smartphone, go buy one, install UC browser in proxy mode, and use it to test everything you're building. Knowing the size of the performance gap is important.

Before getting into the why I’d like to frame the reasoning with a piece of wisdom from Stevey’s Google Platforms Rant:

I’m not really sure how Bezos came to this realization – the insight that he can’t build one product and have it be right for everyone. But it doesn’t matter, because he gets it. There’s actually a formal name for this phenomenon. It’s called Accessibility, and it’s the most important thing in the computing world.

The. Most. Important. Thing.

It’s accessibility in a broad sense, in the sense that you can access the content or service at all, before any usual assisting technology comes in. With smartphone and the web there are three major components that can prevent access: connectivity, hardware, and software. I won’t be talking about connectivity here since this is what most of thoses who cared about mobile first are currently caring about: offline-first with service workers. There are a few blind spots when it comes to the two other topics.


First is The Cost of Frameworks from Paul Lewis:

“A Nexus 5 / iPhone 5S isn’t what our users use.” That’s also probably true. I have the privilege of using good hardware, and I would imagine that many people don’t have access to top end phones, so I’d expect these numbers to be even worse in those cases.

How much worse is critical to know, it can’t just be swept under the rug. After using a cheap smartphone for a while I’m convinced everyone working with the web needs to experience first hand the slowness, the crazy viewing angles, the bad quality touchscreen to truly understand what it means for most people to browse the web. What came out of the data I researched for my previous post is that very soon a large number of people will be getting online with those devices exclusively. They won’t be able to check something on their computer later at home. A cheap smartphone is all they have to access the web.

Take refugees coming to europe, many articles have been written about their use of smartphones to keep safe and stay in contact. If you look at the pictures from the article, you can see a couple of recent ones but most are old models. It is not responsible to footnote cheap hardware performance. By 2020 6 billions smartphones are expected to be online. That’s about the number of people that don’t live in poverty. Of those 6 billions I’m pretty sure most can’t afford a high-end device.

What cheap gets you is surprisingly a lot. There are octo-cores for less than $200. After looking at many, many smartphones prices in Europe, India and what I could from China what I found is that anything under $50 will be crap and anything above $80 starts to have at least one good spec. Either a quad-core, octo-core, or a decent screen. What $50 gets you in 2015 is a dual-core and less than 1 GB RAM. This is about the right combination of specs because what $200 get you is too far from the specs of other devices that will end up on the net.

Internet of weak Things

If we step out of smartphones for a second, consider the Raspberry Pi Zero that you can buy for $5. Same specs as a 5 years old high-end smartphone and people make media centers and servers out of those things. Tiny computers are not the only devices roaming the internet. Consider a Wii U, Xbox, even TVs that will end up on the web with their puny specs. Remember, it’s all about accessibility.


In JavaScript Frameworks and Mobile Performance Tom Dale talks about the benefits of frameworks in managing complexity, maintainability and velocity. I’m sensitive to his argument, especially because we used backbone in Drupal 8 for the exact purpose of taming complexity and improving maintainability:

The bottom line is that I don’t think “reduce the amount of code” is a reasonable lesson for the average developer to follow. Much better to let developers write as much code as they need for the cool apps they want to build, and then have tool vendors figure out how to make that fast.

As browsing a Drupal 8 site shows, the new toolbar is much too expensive to render on every page, in part because it depends on backbone and it’s render pipeline and another part because of a menu tree that is very expensive to render. For our toolbar problem no amount of tooling will help, the architecture needs to change to make it fast. Backbone for the toolbar is not worth it anymore because it’s much simpler than it was planned to be, as is usually the case. On the other side we have quickedit, which I wouldn’t want to write or maintain outside of a framework, but which is less mobile-critical.

The amount of cool needed is often highly overestimated by clients — I’ve done enough site audits to know — they overwhelmingly choose something that works over something cool. Unless the framework used is geared towards performance and provides tools and concepts that are, by nature, performance friendly the cool factor needs to be toned way down to make something accessible. Of the popular frameworks React with redux are those that do the most.

There is another side of software, client software, namely web browsers. To know how a cheap smartphone is used we only need to look at what China is doing. It’s the biggest market, they’re not the richest consumers and the most popular browser is UC. As shown in my presentation, using this browser in proxy mode transforms a cheap device into a high-end one as far as page loading is concerned. There is a reason why it’s the most popular browser is because it’s optimized for cheap hardware, and about 46% of all smartphones are cheap — for some definition of cheap. The same way you can’t forget about cheap smartphones you can’t forget about proxy browsers.


At our level caring about cheap smartphones and proxy browsers is an act of solidarity. There is no reason to exclude them from what you’re building. I’m not saying that if you use Angular, Ember, or React in their current state you don’t care about people, I’m simply writing it. If your problem is that you can’t run your profiling rig on cheap smartphones, it’s not a problem since you’ll be looking at time on the second order of magnitude, and you’re not a sloth, a stopwatch will do.

By coincidence Dries just posted Should we decouple Drupal with a client-side framework?, my answer should be pretty clear by now but it deserve it’s own post to answer with all the appropriate nuances. After writing most of my post I stumbled upon the very detailed The viability of JS frameworks on mobile which talk about this issue with a focus on the how, worthy read.