How Mobile Safari emulates mouse events

  • By Jesse Hallett
  •  • 
  • 28th Jul 2011
  •  • 
  • 4 min read
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  • Tags: 
  • web

When you are adapting web apps to touchscreen devices particular challenges come up around events like mouseover and mouseout. Touchscreen devices like the iPad do not have a cursor, so the user cannot exactly move the mouse over an HTML element. However, Mobile Safari, the web browser that comes with the iPhone and iPad, has a fallback for websites that require hovering or cursor movement.

Usually when you tap on an element on a link or other clickable element Mobile Safari translates that into a regular click event. The browser also produces some touch events that do not exist in a lot of browsers. But from the perspective of a web page that was not designed with a touchscreen in mind, what you get is a plain click. More specifically, the browser fires mousedown, mouseup, and click in that order. But if a clickable element also does something on mouseover then tapping on that element will trigger a mouseover event instead of a click. Tapping on the same element again will produce a click event. A random example of a page that exhibits this behavior is the schedule page from the Open Source Bridge website. Try tapping on session titles and see what happens.

Mobile Safari will only produce mouse events when the user taps on a clickable element, like a link. You can make an element clickable by adding an onClick event handler to it, even if that handler does nothing. On tap Mobile Safari fires the events mouseover, mousemove, mousedown, mouseup, and click in that order - with some caveats which are explained below. Those events all fire together after the user lifts her finger. You might expect the mousedown event to fire as soon as the user presses her finger to the screen - but it does not. When the user taps on another clickable element the browser fires a mouseout event on the first element in addition to firing the aforementioned events on the new element.

So how do we get to the behavior where one tap emulates mouseover and a second tap emulates click? It turns out that after any mouseover event handlers run Safari checks the DOM for changes and if the content has changed it skips the mousedown, mouseup, and click events. So these events do not fire. When the user taps on the same element again the mouseover event does not fire again, so the browser goes ahead with the other events.

The mousemove event behaves in a similar way: if the DOM has changed after any mousemove handlers are finished running then Mobile Safari skips the remaining events.

Diagram from Apple's documentation demonstrating how the browser determines which mouse events to fire.
mouse event firing diagram

Safari does not accept just any change to a DOM element as a “content change” though. Through testing I discovered that adding a regular element to the DOM or showing a previously hidden element in a mouseover handler would prevent the click event from firing. But removing an element, hiding an element, or changing the content of a text node do not prevent the click event. I also tried adding class names to elements - which Safari also did not treat as a “content change”. As far as I can tell only adding or showing an element will cause the mousedown, mouseup, and click events to be skipped.

I created some fiddles on to test Mobile Safari behavior. For your investigative pleasure I have an example of a mouseover handler that adds elements to the DOM, another that shows a hidden element, and a third that makes no changes to the DOM at all.