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World wide wrist.

Apple announced that the WebKit browsing engine is being ported to watchOS. I’m a little excited about that.

(Ugh, yes, hi, I bought an Apple Watch toward the end of last year. If your Obnoxious Man Detector™ suddenly exploded last November, now you know why. Sorry.)

Of course, I’m not sure how excited to be, as we don’t yet know what it means to have WebKit on our wrists. Both Nieman Lab and The Verge published solid round-ups of the event, and there’s not much detail about the feature. Apple’s own announcement page for watchOS 5 is characteristically light on details, only mentioning that you’ll be able to “view web content.”

If I had to guess, I’d imagine some sort of “reader mode” is coming to the Watch: in other words, when you open a link on your Watch, this minified version of WebKit wouldn’t act like a full browser. Instead of rendering all your scripts, styles, and layout, mini-WebKit would present a stripped-down version of your web page. If that’s the case, then Jen Simmons’s suggestion is spot-on: it just got a lot more important to design from a sensible, small screen-friendly document structure built atop semantic HTML.

But who knows! I could be wrong! Maybe it’s a more capable browser than I’m assuming, and we’ll start talking about best practices for layout, typography, and design on watches.

But here’s the thing, though: regardless of what form it takes, WebKit isn’t the first wrist-based browser. The web’s littered with videos of folks using browsers on Android Wear devices, handily browsing through responsive designs on a watch-sized screen. And back in 2015—2015!Matt Griffin wrote a lovely case study of how he adjusted a responsive design to better suit a new watch-sized screen.

We’ve had the web on small, wrist-based screens for years. Granted, the idea of browsing the web on a watch hasn’t taken our industry by storm—but it’s worth remembering our industry is, frankly, kind of terrible at predicting where the web’s going. On a personal level, I’m really excited I’ll finally be able to open links from my friends when my phone’s not nearby. But as a designer, I’m excited to see where the web might be going next.


Update: A few hours after I wrote this, Apple released a video on how WebKit on the Watch will work, and how best to make our websites adapt to it. It seems we’re getting much more than a stripped down, “reader mode” browser: the Watch’s WebKit browser looks pretty darned good, as it turns out. It doesn’t support web fonts, service workers, or embedded videos. (Or rather, not yet: WebKit’s Wenson Hsieh says they’re not supported “at this time.”) But otherwise, it’s looking like a proper little wrist-based browser—one that should work nicely with your responsive designs.

If you aren’t able to watch the video, a few round-ups:

  • Erik Runyon covers the technical details of how to make our webpages work on watchOS.
  • Marcus Herrmann also ably covers the video, but notes a few items of concern around forms and accessibility.
  • Tim Kadlec asks a lot of insightful performance-related questions. I, too, would love to know how JavaScript’s going to throttled. (If at all.)
  • Patrick Lauke notes that “no web fonts” means “no icon fonts.” So if you’re looking to switch to SVG for your icons, now’s the time. (You should do this anyway.)

Generally, this is sounding really quite promising. If your design’s already responsive, there’s not a lot you’ll need to do to get it looking great on the Watch. As Marcus put it, “What I like is that ‘optimizing websites for Apple Watch’ means—summarized—working with best practices.”


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