Web & communication software

Attack of the Mobile Browsers

If you are among the fading majority, you'll be reading this story in a cavernous desktop browser with screen real estate that goes on and on like the Montana sky. If you're from the future, you're pinching and sliding your fingers over a smartphone screen that seems tiny until you stick it in a belt holster and curse because it's not small enough to fit comfortably in your pocket. The mobile Web browser may not be as easy on the eyes, but hey, you might be reading it while swinging on a hammock over a beautiful beach while drinking fancy beverages.

smartphone
The vision of a future dominated by smartphones is well understood by everyone, even if it's about as likely to come true as the prediction that mainframes are finished. The desktops may never surrender to the tiny pocket browsers, but it doesn't matter because everyone is ready to fight over who will be the dominant renderer of HTML for the smartphones.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Tablet deathmatch: Galaxy Tab 10.1 vs. iPad 2" | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

The battle is even more pitched than the struggle for dominance over the desktop browser, but it's more nuanced and complicated because the platforms are more fragmented and constrained. The major phone companies exert some mixture of control over what runs on their hardware, and this is influencing the outcome. Apple, for instance, used to drag its heels on approving anything that would compete with Safari. Now it lets some in, but everyone watches its decisions with a wary eye.

The politics are only the beginning of the confusion because the hardware and software differences are significant. Phones from the same manufacturer with the same shell run different chip sets using different versions of the operating system. Some browsers look better on tablets than phones and vice versa. Although the use of virtual machines smoothes over some differences, the rapid evolution of the software stack creates other disparities.

Firefox, for instance, runs only on Android and Nokia phones. On the iPhone, Firefox synchronizes only bookmarks and other personalized information with your desktop browser. The official story doesn't always match reality. When I tried to install Firefox on my phone running Android 2.3, the Android Marketplace said it wouldn't work. My model wasn't approved.

There are also limits to the features. Some browsers brag about supporting Flash content, and they usually do a good job with it. Even though the Flash format is quite efficient, the content creators often build presentations that are too big for the small devices. In the end, Flash presentations, like David Lean movies, are a disappointment on the little screen.

All of this turmoil is creating opportunities. On the iPhone, the formerly unknown browsers are quite nice. They run quite well and sometimes offer the ability to run Flash content directly because they have compiled Flash into the stack. There are a surprisingly large number of new names appearing, and some are beginning to be mentioned in the same breath as the big browsers that dominate the desktop.

The turmoil is also changing the definition of what a browser might be. A number of small applications such as Instapaper, Flipboard, and Evernote never set out to be browsers, but people are using them to read Web pages. They may not be official browsers, but they're certainly vehicles for consuming Web content.

While the proliferation of competition is probably good for users in the long run, it's bound to bring plenty of confusion to the Web developers who want to do a good job for all browsers. In my experiments, I often started with digg.com and tried random websites. During these trips, I found significant differences in the ways the websites are rendered. The pages all seem to let you browse and click, but the appearances are wildly different in the assorted browsers.

These variations aren't always the browser's fault. Some websites do a better job of recognizing the different User Agent strings and some don't. It's not uncommon for the server to redirect a browser from the Safari client to the mobile version but send the request from Skyfire to the desktop version.

All of this makes it impossible to say much with any certainty about the space. Although many people may use the default browsers on their phones, a good number are gradually exploring other vehicles for conveying the content to our brains. We're not at the point of actual brain interfaces yet, but given the speed of development it's not hard to imagine it won't be long.

firefox mobile
Mobile browser No. 1: Firefox Firefox lovers can take their plug-in architecture with them in their pocket now that the Firefox browser runs on Android and Nokia (Maemo) phones. That statement is a bit too expansive because the executable works with only certain models and chip sets, but some of the most popular models are on that list.

The advantages are many if you're a Firefox fan. The HTML is rendered by Gecko -- the same engine that drives Firefox on the desktop -- not the built-in Android engine that many of the other mobile browsers use. That means the Web page will look like what you see on your desk, more or less, which makes life easier for the programmers who want to craft Web apps.

The browser itself welcomes plug-ins and extensions written in a form that's pretty similar to the desktop version. Many of the popular mobile plug-ins are the same as their popular desktop counterparts. For the developers, the migration is not much more difficult than thinking about how to jam the information into a smaller screen.

Although there are plenty of Firefox lovers, it's easy to find users who grouse about the speed. This will probably get better as the Mozilla developers roll out the latest versions of the desktop JavaScript interpreter; then again, it might not. Many of the tricks for speeding up the desktop browser require chewing up RAM, which is often in short supply on the smartphone.

Mobile browser No. 2: Opera Mini and Opera Mobile The company that's known for building zippy desktop browsers, which often download and render content faster than the competition, is delivering the same features to the smartphone and tablet world. The Opera browser feels smoother and looks prettier than the standard models on the phone.

opera
There are deeper advantages. For some time, Opera has been building its Turbo infrastructure, a huge collection of servers that act as proxies for browsing the Web. They collect the data, then compress it further. While desktop users may like the feature because it can speed up delivery of data, mobile users may like it even more -- especially if they're using data plans that measure consumption. It's more and more common to find mobile phone plans that include only the first 5GB or 10GB of data each month. Opera is not shy about pointing out the advantages of using this service.

One of the smarter things that Opera does is wrap text. The second round of mobile browsers tried to imitate their big-screen rivals on the desktop, often leading to much pinching and scrolling. Opera tries to word wrap the DIVs much more aggressively than the desktop browsers. It makes reading some pages much easier.

Additionally, Opera seems to have more of the features that we've grown accustomed to using on the desktop, and the company offers to sync the mobile with the desktop browser so that you have a consistent appearance. Thus, if you put a website on the speed-dial splash screen of your desktop, it can appear on your mobile as well. The mobile also has tabs, a long history, and a number of other features we're used to living without in a mobile browser.

Next page: even more browsers!

Mobile browser No. 3: Boat Browser Mini Boat Browser is a relatively simple and rather elegant browser for Android phones that seems to remind many people of using Safari on an iPhone. This is partly because of the color and partly because it doesn't have too many extra features. The performance is fairly snappy, and Boat Browser can play many Flash videos -- a notable departure from mobile Safari.

The settings section offers a wider collection of buttons and options, including the ability to set the "mobile view engine." You can clear the cache, toggle the full-screen mode, and even turn on the ability to "open pages in overview." On the HTML5Test.com site, Boat Browser scored 182 out of 400, just under what is common in this space.

When I was testing the browser, it suddenly disappeared from the Android Market, then reappeared in a new version two weeks later. No one made any official statement about why it was gone; in fact, it's difficult to know where an official statement about Boat Browser might come from. The lack of a serious Web page owned by the company should be reason enough to be curious about the provenance of the code. It's hard to imagine that someone would put this much effort into something with a malicious intent, but weirder things have happened.

dolphin
Mobile browser No. 4: Dolphin Browser HD There are two versions of the Dolphin browser for Android: the Mini version for Android 1.6 and later, and the HD version built for Android 2.0 and later devices. Both are nice, but most people with the chance to run the HD version should choose it because it has a number of extra features.

The most intriguing feature to me is the customizable command that reacts to a gesture. You can draw your own patterns on the screen, then link them to Web pages or actions. The browser offers a wide collection of standard actions; for instance, drawing a V on the screen will jump immediately to the bottom of the page.

There are even deeper options for customization. Dolphin, like the desktop version of Firefox, offers the opportunity to create plug-ins or add-ons. Some just change the look or theme, but others add functionality. One from Last.fm, for instance, will let you listen to your Last.fm stream while browsing. There are a fair number of interesting add-ons, but the options (about 50) are still far short of the desktop ecologies.

Other neat features are buried in the settings menu. I enjoyed changing the volume buttons into controls that move the Web page up and down. The User Agent is easy to change. These and dozens of other options make Dolphin one of the most intriguing alternatives for those who aren't content to use Android's standard browser.

skyfire
Mobile browser No. 5: Skyfire When the Flash war broke out between Apple and Adobe, the developers of Skyfire saw their chance. They compiled a Flash interpreter into their mobile browser for Android and iOS, and now Skyfire users can see Flash presentations even if they're using an iPhone. As I've mentioned, this isn't always a perfect combination because many Flash presentations are so large that they choke the connection or overwhelm the screen, but the possibility is there.

After the Flash integration, the most notable feature is the way the Skyfire browser pushes integration with social networking hubs such as Facebook and Twitter. To save you the agony of waiting several seconds or even longer for the news to arrive from Facebook about your BFF's latest OMG-inspiring tale, Skyfire caches a current version and calls it QuickView. One push and you can toggle between the Web and Facebook friends.

The integration with Facebook goes deeper. The Like button is always floating around on every single page you visit. If you want to share the words and images you're viewing, just one push will send them out to all friends. There's no need to waste seconds by flipping over to the Facebook QuickView.

That's not all. Some versions of Skyfire extract a separate RSS feed of links suggested by your friends. Skyfire will also compile a list of the most popular links throughout Facebook. No wonder Facebook says it's not building a browser -- Skyfire is doing a pretty good job already.

But it's not all Facebook all of the time. Skyfire has similar features that integrate with Twitter and Google Reader. If you want to save bookmarks, Delicious is a click away. If you want to save the text itself, Instapaper and Pinboard are there too.

Mobile browser No. 6: Miren If there are any Web users who still believe that English is the lingua franca of the Web, they might want to try out the Miren browser for Android. While the English-language version is easy to understand and use, there's no doubt that the browser comes from China. I had to use the Google translator to read through Miren.cn and discover that the company's name can be roughly translated as "charming browser," a description that's a pretty good match.

On one hand, this browser doesn't offer any features that make it stand out from the other candidates. There are tabs and a nice set of bookmarks that appear on the splash screen, as with so many other browsers. But by the same token, Miren isn't missing any essential features. Most of the features that now seem sort of standard -- Flash, multitouch, pinching, and so on -- are supported. It's a very usable tool.

Miren may not be as slick or as graceful as other mobile browsers such as Opera, depending on your preferences. It felt a bit sluggish as I paged around, but I never encountered any glaring crashes. It's a perfectly nice Android browser.

Mobile browser No. 7: UC Browser English-speaking users will feel even more behind if they download the English version of the UC Browser. The Chinese version gets all of the latest code, while the new features take their time working their way down to the English iteration.

This is a competitive browser with many of the features we're used to seeing. I enjoyed using the "open in background" option that calls up a Web page in a hidden window. When you switch to the page after a bit, it's more likely to be loaded. It's like holding down the control key while browsing on a desktop.

Another nice feature is "reading mode," a process that intercepts the mouse clicks and uses them to control the scrolling. A tap on the top moves up, and a tap on the bottom moves down. This is a nice feature for reading longer pages.

In other cases, I felt lost. When I tried to swipe my finger up to find an address bar for a new URL, it wasn't there. I found myself hunting for features that are probably closer to the standard way of accomplishing things in English-language browsers. English-language users may become more aware of the UC way of doing things because the browser is growing in popularity. It recently won the 2011 About.com Readers' Choice award for best mobile browser.

Mobile browser No. 8: QQ For the ultimate in Chinese browsing, I turned to QQ, a browser for Android that has no English-language version that I could find. Although it's possible to enjoy the Web by guessing at many of the characters, it's just not feasible for non-Chinese speakers to use this very often. The mechanism seemed to work well, but I felt like the rendering of English characters wasn't as readable as in other browsers, something that shouldn't be a surprise.

Next page: a few more browsers and some alternatives.

atomic
Mobile browser No. 9: Atomic Web Browser Atomic Web Browser for the iPhone and iPad is a pretty little browser with an emphasis on privacy. My favorite feature may be the way that a three-finger tap toggles the full-screen mode that hides the controls. The other big feature that may attract iPhone users is a competent tab implementation that's easier to negotiate than using the hidden pages. The three-finger maneuver is simple enough that you don't mind giving up the extra real estate to the tabs.

The browser scores relatively well on HTML5Test.com, pulling in 206 out of 400 points. Basic support for local data and canvas drawing is available, but there are gaps where some of the more exotic features like Web Workers should be.

The other notable feature is the collection of privacy functions that help limit the amount of information that the browser records. Both the cache and the cookie database can be cleaned or turned off entirely.

The paid version (99 cents) includes a collection of other features, like the ability to read the page source, change the user agent, and store your favorite font size on a site-by-site basis.

Mobile browser No. 10: Mercury Browser Mercury Browser is another option for the iPhone or iPad user who is a bit tired of mobile Safari. The principle enhancements are a collection of multifingered gestures and a slick menu that pops up in response. The feature that caught my eye the most was a small, gray icon that flashed on the screen whenever the browser detected a gesture. This lessened the confusion somewhat.

Mercury Browser also scored 206 on HTML5Test.com, like many of the other iPhone browsers. It is presumably using the UIWebView to handle the hard work of parsing the HTML and laying out the content. The changes are just in the interface.

There aren't many differences between the free Lite version and the 99-cent Pro version. The only one I can identify by running the documentation through a diff filter is the ability to save your files to Dropbox.com.

There's not much to the documentation that I could see. This made it a bit tricky to understand exactly what the icons and the neat circular menu would do. A mobile browser doesn't support mouse-over events like the desktop, so there's no way to give hints. Nonetheless, I was able to figure out most of the gestures.

More mobile browsers: Evernote, Flipboard, and Instapaper If the browsers were perfect, these options wouldn't exist. Flipboard is a very pretty way to browse through the news, and there's no reason why the major papers shouldn't be able to imitate it -- but they don't. I'm not sure why. The transitions are all available, and the browsers support them.

instapaper
The same might be said for Instapaper. All of the desktop browsers have allowed us to save the HTML and JavaScript in files known as Web archives for years. Yet this is still too confusing for people, so Instapaper has found a foothold. Click a button in Safari, and Instapaper saves Web pages to your iPhone for reading later.

Along the same lines, Evernote is a tool that tries to "capture everything," including Web pages and screenshots of Web pages, as well as notes, photos, and audio recordings. It's a simple tool that serves as a thoroughly modern file folder.

All three of these are far from complete browsers. If anything, their lack of ability to act like a complete browser is part of the charm that supposedly draws people to them. They aren't loaded down with tabs to make it easier to juggle all of the windows, and they don't seem wedded to the idea that they should reproduce the content exactly the way that the original designer wanted it to appear.

We're already seeing the ideas from these applications make their way into the browsers. The front page of tiles showing the most popular bookmarks is already common, and it looks a lot like Flipboard even though the tiles don't flip. The features for sharing links aren't much different from those that save full copies of websites. In a sense, Facebook is just another place to store links and sites.

"Meta" browsers like Evernote, Flipboard, and Instapaper will be where the innovation really begins. They act like the farm team for the major browsers by giving a good indication of what the browsing public needs and wants. They're a pleasure to use, but I'm guessing we'll soon see all of their innovations rolled into the mainstream browsers.

This story, "Attack of the mobile browsers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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