Battle of the Mobile Browsers

Next Generation of Mobile Browsers

There is a range of vendors vying to win the browsing allegiance of mobile users. Opera Software launched one of the earliest of these browsers in 2000, Opera Mobile. The company says the 9.5 release will rival desktop browsing in speed. In early 2006, Opera Mini was introduced for less-capable phones. Another is the browser widely used in Symbian-based mobile phones, such as those from Nokia. Still another offering is Bitstream's two-year-old ThunderHawk browser, which the company earlier this year ported to Qualcomm's Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) , a Java-based application development platform for mobile phones, to make for the first mass-market release of the browser.

In development are Mobile Firefox, a client browser, and Skyfire, with a thin client working with desktop Firefox 3.0 running on servers.

All of them have in common powerful, modern rendering engines, which make it possible for the browsers to display Web sites that look like those you see with a desktop browser. Safari and the Nokia browser use the same rendering engine: the open source WebKit. All Firefox projects use the same rendering engine, Gecko. Opera has over a decade invested in its core engine.

Programs this powerful and complex, even when highly optimized for memory use, need powerful and complex devices to run on. But currently, most mobile phones are low- to midrange designs.

"Lots of people have tried to access their favorite Web sites [with the default microbrowser] and failed," Sampo Kaasila, vice president of R&D for Bitstream, in Cambridge, Mass. "They conclude 'the mobile Web doesn't work for me.' But with Opera Mini, it will work for e-mail, news and social networking. That's key for building the industry as a whole."

Thin Browsers Emerge

Several vendors are creating thin-client browsers, such as Skyfire, ThunderHawk and Opera Mini. They run the rendering and other processing on server farms, which have fiber connections to the Internet, and send to the lightweight mobile client simply a representation of the Web page on phones that could never run a full mobile browser.

With this approach, the vendors also can consistently implement improvements like data compression. Bitstream uses its own compression technology to create what executives say is a 23-to-1 reduction in over-the-air data sizes.

But many mobile browsers, and the major HTTP server platforms, already support a compression utility called gzip (short for GNU zip), though it apparently is not routinely used, according to Jason Grigsby, vice president and Web strategist for Cloud Four, a Portland, Ore., Web development shop that increasingly focuses on mobile applications.

When activated on both the browser and Web server, Gzip compresses content typically by 75% to 80% on the server before sending it to the browser for decompression. Grigsby, who makes presentation on mobile Web performance, says he constantly hears from Web developers that these kinds of performance issues are new to them.

In the course of creating an online performance test for mobile browsers, Grigsby and another colleague spent 36 hours trying to figure out why some versions of BlackBerry's browser displayed the thumbnail-sized test images and others didn't. It turned out to be a bug in how the browser added an image to the page. "It points to the fact that the [mobile] browser has not been a focus of RIM's development, and it's not up to modern browsing standards," Grigsby says.

Trade-offs and Frustrations

For developers the advent of such browsers can bring constant and frustrating trade-offs between industry standards and vendor innovations and extensions. "The iPhone has a whole slough of iPhone-specific Cascading Style Sheet extensions, which let you do things that you can't do with CSS on other browsers," says Grigsby. ThunderHawk makes use of Bitstream's patented font technology, substituting its own fonts and creating several magnification levels to increase the legibility of text on mobile screens.

"More standardization is needed," Grigsby says.

The W3C's Mobile Web Initiative has created a set of best practices for optimizing Web site design to improve browsing for mobile users. It's expected to become a formal W3C recommendation in the next two months, says Matt Womer

But there's a limit to standardization. Browsing on a given mobile device is highly individualized by the device capabilities, the browser design decisions, and the user's interaction with both. Every vendor in this article displays a full Web page on a phone screen. But after that, how you work with it can vary widely.

The iPhone's touch interface clearly has made browsing easy for users but it's just as clearly a high-end phone. Mozilla's Mobile Firefox project is crafting both a touch and a nontouch user interface.

Bitstream's ThunderHawk shows at the top of the screen what the company calls a "minimap" of the entire Web page, outlining the section of the page being viewed by the user, with clickable "hotspots" to other parts of the page. The minimap is an aid to navigating the full page quickly.

Opera Mobile 9.5 borrows from Opera Mini to now show a full Web page, then let users pan and zoom to find and focus on specific areas. A grayed-out upside down "V" on the bottom right of the screen gives one-click access to an overlay page of standard browser buttons and actions.

It all adds up to new opportunities, and new headaches. "The browser wars are back and this time the battlefield is mobile," says Grigsby.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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