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Microbrowser No More

By Craig Mathias on Thu, 02/07/08 - 8:54pm.

Back in the early days of wireless and the Web, around 1994-1995, I remember giving a number of talks where I stressed that there needed to be no difference in functionality between the desktop and mobile/wireless Web experience. This was based primarily on my feeling that we needed common Web standards in order for the Web to proliferate for information display, let alone for Web services, and that users would have a hard time dealing with one Web in the office and an entirely different Web on a mobile device. Keep in mind this was during the early days of text-based WAP browsers, and it was indeed remarkable that a mobile phone could display anything from the Web at all, even if it was just text.

We've struggled with the gap in desktop/mobile Web functionality since. I had the distinct impression that the handset vendors just weren't interested in my point (or didn't know how to solve the problem) as I sat through briefing after briefing featuring some marketing guy saying "people don't want the same capabilities as they have in the office when they're mobile". Rubbish. That's just another way of saying that the vendors have to sell what they have today, and maybe they'll build what we actually want later if and when they figure out how to do it.

And, indeed, they have. The Apple iPhone gets a lot of attention and credit for being the first mobile device with a really good browser. I personally find Safari lacking in a number of dimensions; it still has problems with some websites I use, like Yahoo Mail (yes, I know, I'm giving that up, but still...). But Safari wasn't the first full-featured mobile browser.

The credit and honor there goes to Bitstream's Thunderhawk, which was displaying credible Web pages on high-end mobile devices more than five years ago. Unfortunately, development at Bitstream seems to be proceeding very slowly, and the product is available on only a very limited number of devices. The interesting element in Thunderhawk, though, is that it's really a very lightweight browser - most of the processing takes places on a server. Bitstrem charges a small monthly or annual fee to use Thunderhawk.

This proxy-based approach is carrying over to a very exciting new product, the upcoming Skyfire browser, but Skyfire, soon to go to beta, is free. Another one to have a look at is Opera's just-announced Opera Mobile 9.5, which is a more traditional implementation but still looks pretty cool. Check out the video demos of both of these. Granted, the UI has to be a little different than on the desktop, but the functionality here is remarkable. And, as I said many years ago, that functionality has to be essentially identical between desktop and mobile browser so that the application base is supported on as many devices as possible. And it now looks, finally, like we're going to have that. I've signed up for the beta of Skyfire and I'll let you know what I think as soon as I try it. Both Skyfire and Opera Mobile 9.5 look so promising that I've put my plan to acquire a Voyager on hold.

It may be time to retire the term "microbrowser" - and none too soon.