Microsoft touts 'browser with no name' in Windows Phone 7

Execs claim 'vastly improved' mobile browser, based on 'evolution' of IE7

At the MIX Web developer conference, Windows Phone 7 executives had relatively little to say about the now-unnamed browser on the new mobile operating system. At the same time, the company announced "preview" version of much advanced technology and features in what will eventually be Internet Explorer 9.

At its MIX Web developer conference this week Microsoft had little to say about the unnamed browser in Windows Phone 7, even as it trumpeted a limited "preview" release of desktop Internet Explorer 9.

Windows Phone 7: A sneak peek at the apps

The mobile Web browser featured on Windows Phone 7 devices will be a "vast improvement" over the browser currently running on existing Windows Mobile 6.5 devices.

That older browser, IE Mobile 6, released in 2009, was itself a pretty vast improvement for long-suffering Windows Mobile users. That's because IEM6 was the first to offer a full HTML rendering engine, based on desktop IE6.

And that was also its chief drawback: a technology core that was first introduced in 2001, although it included technology elements from IE7 and from the then-beta release of IE8.

When users get a Windows Phone 7 device sometime this fall, the IE6 core finally will be laid to rest, replaced with an "evolved version" of IE7, according to Todd Brix, senior director, product management, for Microsoft's mobile communications business. Somewhat oddly, Brix and other Windows Phone and mobile executives always referred to "the Windows Phone 7 browser," or "the browser" or, often, just "it."

Microsoft isn't unique in this: Nokia and Google don't have names for their mobile browsers either.

Brix didn't go into technical details but the evolution of "it" presumably means adopting the core elements of IE7, released in late 2006, and some elements from IE8 which was released almost exactly one year ago at MIX09.

Some of the improvements are obvious in demonstrations this week at MIX10, Microsoft's Web-focused developer conference. These include: fully-enabled, four-point multi-touch, zooming in and out by a pinching finger gesture on the screen, so-called "deep zoom" for extreme, high fidelity close-ups, remarkably clear typography and display of text, and very smooth, fast operation.

"We invested heavily in optimizing the browser for mobile," says Charlie Kindel, partner group program manager for the Windows Phone application platform and developer experience at Microsoft.

But Microsoft at MIX10 hasn't singled out the Windows Phone browser as a key development. And in any case it's overshadowed by the release Tuesday of the "partner preview" of desktop IE9. Among the new or improved features: expanded, more robust support for emerging Web standards such as HTML5 and CSS 3, and dramatically improved performance due to a new Javascript engine.

IE9 will run graphics and text rendering on a separate graphics processing unit (GPU), rather than a CPU, using a dedicated chip to give a big boost to its speed. The Windows Phone 7 visual user interface also exploits a GPU on the phone, part of the hardware specification worked out by Microsoft and its partners. It seems at least possible that the phone's browser also may use that.

Microsoft demonstrated IE9 running H.264 video from YouTube, natively within the browser by means of supporting HTML5, instead of using plugins such as Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. It's not clear yet whether Windows Phone browser will be able to do that: Microsoft has said the initial release will support neither Adobe Flash or Silverlight.

But Microsoft's emphasis on creating a modern, cutting edge user experience in Windows Phone, underlines the technology lag between the desktop and phone browsing experience. Microsoft doesn't see it that way. "It will be not just a very competitive browser but one of the better [mobile] browsing experiences available," Brix says.

Part of the lag has been due to the unsynchronized engineering efforts of various units within Microsoft. This weakness is being corrected in many places and levels inside the company, according to executives. Brix says the Windows Phone and desktop browser engineering groups are working much more closely than in the past and this will continue to improve. Users and developers can expect to see features and innovations emerge on the desktop product and then migrate at a much faster rate than in the past to the mobile browser, he says.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for “Network World.”

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