I have always liked the iPad’s version of Safari, and so have never bothered to explore the various alternative browsers on the App Store. But Safari does have a couple of drawbacks: it usually tries to display a site’s mobile version first, and some sites will block functionality when Mobile Safari is detected. To take just three examples: my credit union doesn’t display the required security code for login on Mobile Safari; Google Docs serves a mobile version, unless you choose otherwise; and, most frustrating for my purposes, PBWorks says that Mobile Safari doesn’t support editing online, and won’t let you edit pages at all. Since we use PBWorks for some behind-the-scenes work at ProfHacker, and I use it in most classes for my wikified class notes assignment, this was a serious limitation!
Eventually, this became too irritating to tolerate, and so I started downloading some alternative browsers. However, PBWorks kept returning the same error: Sorry, your browser doesn’t support rich web editing.
The solution is a technique called user agent spoofing (or switching), which sounds more nefarious–or Tron-related–than it is. When web browsers connect to a server, part of the information they send is something called a User Agent String, which says, among other things, “hey, here’s the kind of browser I am, and here’s the platform I’m running on.” You can see your user agent at this single-serving site: What’s My User Agent? Because some dynamic websites deliver slightly different content depending on the browser, it can be helpful to occasionally masquerade as a different one. (There are other reasons, too: for example, maybe you want your YouTube delivered in HTML5, not Flash.)
Nothing requires the User Agent string to match the actual browser you’re using, and indeed there are a variety of plug-ins that will let your desktop browser switch to a different user agent: Firefox, Chrome. If you activate the Developer Tools menu in Safari, you have access to a user-agent switcher built right into the browser.
There are ways to spoof the User Agent String on Mobile Safari, but they are somewhat complicated.
An easier strategy on the iPad is to install an alternative browser, one with user agent switching as a supported feature. There are a variety of browser apps available in the app store that meet this criterion; the one I’ve been using is Atomic Web Browser ($0.99–NB: The free version doesn’t support user-agent switching.)
If I run Atomic Web Browser as itself, PBWorks still doesn’t work. But if I go to the settings menu and select “Identify Browser As,” and then choose “Safari Desktop,” then everything works. I can edit my PBWorks page; Google Docs opens in the desktop view; and I can even access my banking information. In addition to a variety of pre-defined user agents, Atomic Web Browser also allows you to set a custom user agent, in case there’s yet another browser you’d like to emulate.
One problem with running alternative browsers on the iPad is that you can’t set one as the default. Mobile Safari is always the default web browser. So I don’t use Atomic Web Browser most of the time–but it is an incredibly useful app to have for quick editing in PBworks, or for any other times a site pretends not to like Mobile Safari.
Do you use user agent switching in your work? Let us know in comments!