Usable Web Development is Not as Platform-Independent As You Want

September 28, 2008

The development of usable web applications still requires some platform-specific customization.

Software developers know that they can save work by making web applications instead of desktop applications. People use computers with Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows. The same web application automatically works on all three operating systems, but a desktop application needs special attention.

Some people think that web applications don’t need any customization for different operating systems. They feel that following Web-specific conventions is enough. I disagree. Here is an example of a situation that requires customization.

There is a recent trend in web applications to enable keyboard shortcuts. For example, pressing Control-B in GMail makes text bold and Control-I makes text italic.

Individual operating systems also have keyboard shortcuts. For example, on most Windows applications that edit text, Control-B makes text bold and Control-I makes text italic. 

This is a problem because these keyboard shortcuts aren’t consistent across operating systems. For example, on Mac OS X, pressing Control-B moves the caret back a character, Command-B makes text bold and Command-I makes text italic.

Web applications need to respect these differences to be usable. I use Mac OS X, so I expect Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts to work even in web applications. Usable web applications need platform-specific customization.

(Specific problems: When I use Mac OS X, in GMail, Control-B should move the caret back a character, Command-B should make text bold and Command-I should make text italic. In WordPress, when the Post Title edit box has the focus, Control-A should move the caret to the beginning of the line and Control-E should move it to the end.)

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