Attack of the Mobile Browsers

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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.

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.

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.

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