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: New generation of mobile browsers put the whole Web in your hands

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 per cent 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.

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