Steve Jobs has boasted that the iPhone delivers "the real Internet" rather than a dumbed-down version. If that means the phone's Safari browser should be capable of anything a desktop browser can do, the iPhone fails to meet that standard. But it's still a sizable leap forward for mobile browsing.
Most phone browsers deal with their tiny screens by heavily reformatting pages. With Safari, pages look pretty much as they would in a desktop browser--Safari simply shrinks them down to fit the iPhone's screen. The shrunken versions have text that's too tiny to read, so you zoom in and out on the page by pinching and pulling. Overall, this works much better in practice than it sounds like it should--the shrunken versions are legible enough to give you a sense of where to zoom, and once you've magnified the page, you can use your thumb to scroll down. (Tip: Safari works best in landscape mode, not the skinnier portrait orientation.)
As a tool for reading Web content--news sites, for instance--Safari is terrific. And while downloading pages over EDGE wasn't as snappy as with Wi-Fi, it also wasn't as sluggish as we'd feared it might be. I happily browsed my way through sites I wouldn't even try to load in most phone browsers.
Web 2.0--Hit and Miss
But today's real Internet includes plenty of sophisticated Web applications, and here the browser disappointed me. A few of the Web 2.0 sites we tried, such as iGoogle and Flickr, worked well. But most were either a little wobbly or altogether inoperable. Google Docs and Spreadsheets worked well enough to let me view some word-processing documents and spreadsheets, but I couldn't see all our documents, or edit any of them. The Meebo Web-based instant-messenger client loaded, but I couldn't send IMs. NetVibes wouldn't let me log in; Remember the Milk sort of worked, but not as well as its mobile version. And so on.
Of course, even if an application like Google Docs worked perfectly, there'd be a limit to how much typing you'd want to do on the iPhone's tiny on-screen keyboard. Even typing URLs is a little tricky, and we struggled with passwords--it would be nice if you could opt for them to be displayed rather than asterisked out, since it can be hard to tell if you've made a typo. (Safari syncs your bookmarks from IE and desktop Safari when you connect to a computer; too bad it doesn't do the same for Firefox.)
The real Internet circa 2007 also packs a lot of multimedia and interactivity in an array of formats--Flash, Java, Windows Media, Real, and more. The iPhone's Safari doesn't support any of these; the only Web media that's likely to work in this browser is stuff in Apple's own QuickTime format.
-- Harry McCracken