New mobile browsers bringing real Web to handhelds

'The browser wars are back,' says one developer

A new generation of mobile Web browsers is finally making the Web a reality on handheld devices.

The latest example is last week's beta launch of Opera Mobile 9.5, a native Web browser for high-end smartphones. It's an evolutionary release for the Norwegian software company, but it comes just days after Apple's iPhone 3G, with its highly capable Safari browser, went on sale. Other brand-new entrants, such as Mobile Firefox and Skyfire, are expected later this year, at least in beta form. (See slideshow of new mobile browsers.)

But the evolving mobile browsers are only one part of the picture. Mobile browsing is affected by the client hardware, ranging from the processor to the kind of wireless network being used, all of which have improved markedly. It's also affected by the design of Web sites being targeted, and there's new attention being focused on optimizing these sites for mobile users.

When everything comes together, the results can be impressive. In the United States, the combination of the iPhone's large screen, touch interface and Safari has given mobile users a new way of viewing the Web: the way they're used to seeing it with their PC-based Web browsers. Until now, most users struggled with so-called microbrowsers, which typically access separately created and maintained Web content.

StatCounter reported in March that Safari/iPhone was the No. 1 mobile browser in the United States, and No. 2 globally, trailing the Nokia Web browser. Google released data in January showing that Christmas traffic to its site from iPhone users outstripped all other mobile devices, at a point when the iPhone had just 2% of the smartphone market.

The lesson was clear: Give mobile users a browser they could actually use . . . and they'd use it.

No more second-class browsing

"Mobile browsing was considered a second-class citizen on the Web," says Matt Womer, the Mobile Web Initiative Lead, Americas, with the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C). "You had to serve completely different content, with a different markup [language] and different protocols." Those were the days of such early browsers as Phone.com/OpenWave, and the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP), a markup for creating mobile-friendly Web content.

The iPhone Safari browser, though not the first full Web browser for handhelds, crystallized a huge change in thinking. "There's [now] a convergence of the desktop Web and the mobile device Web," says Mike Rowehl, scalability architect for start-up Skyfire Labs, which is creating a thin-client mobile browser, with most of the heavy-lifting work being done by the core Firefox desktop browser running on servers. "The iPhone really cracked that open, and people are starting to think differently about the services on their device."

"People browsing the Web from a mobile device don't expect an 'alternative universe' which lacks features they're used to," says Jay Sullivan, vice president of mobile for Mozilla, overseeing the Mobile Firefox project, which will shortly release its alpha test version.

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, says Oleg Tukh, product manager for Opera Mini, Opera Software, Oslo, Norway. "They conclude 'the mobile Web doesn't work for me.' But with Opera Mini, it will work: for email, news, 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.

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