Is Apple opening iPhone to new browsers?

Newly approved browser apps expand options, may show change in policy

Apple may be loosening restrictions that have so far blocked Web browsers save its own Safari from the iPhone, according to a number of Web news sites. But at least some of the newly approved applications appear to be Safari plug-ins, rather than true alternative browsers.

This week Apple has given a green light to some new third-party Web browsing applications for the iPhone, as a number of Apple-focused Web sites quickly noticed. The applications appeared on sites like AppShopper, a Website for iPhone and iPod Touch software, as well as Apple's App Store. Some of them are free, others range in price from US$1 to $2.

But a closer look at the sometimes-sketchy information about these new applications reveals they may be plug-ins or skins to enhance the default Web Safari browser. One example of such a plug-in is Cooliris, which is clearly identified as such.

There's been no formal announcement by Apple, and the Apple PR staff has not responded to our request for comment.

Apple's apparent change, if in fact it proves to be so, comes at a time of growing innovation in mobile Web browsers. Safari, a full HTML Web browser, has been one of the key reasons for the iPhone's popularity. The phone's big screen, and clever multitouch display, has been a highly effective hardware platform for Safari's Web browsing and rendering features, though it still lacks support for Adobe Flash, a widely used program for adding video, animation and interaction to Web pages.

(Last year, a Texas company filed a patent infringement suit against Apple, claiming Safari on the iPhone violated the company's recently issued Web navigation patent.)

But Safari is far from being the first, or only, full Web browser for mobile devices. Opera Software offers both Opera Mobile and a server-based version, Opera Mini, which can run on even low-end cell phones. Others include Bitstream's ThunderHawk, Nokia's Symbian-based mobile browser and Skyfire.

Microsoft plans a new browser, called Internet Explorer Mobile 6, due in mid-2009, for Windows Mobile smartphones, based on parts taken from desktop IE 6 and 7, and some code from the beta release of IE 6.

Until now, some observers have believed Apple has ruled out rival browsers or even optional features on the grounds that they duplicate functionality of an existing iPhone application, in this case Safari. That somewhat vague criteria has been used to disqualify other App Store applications, and has been roundly criticized by developers.

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John Cox

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