RIM develops a better BlackBerry browser

RIM powers up Webkit investment for new BlackBerry browser

RIM is expanding its effort to redefine the Web browsing experience for BlackBerry users. In a recent job posting on LinkedIn, RIM asked for an expert C++ programmer who is firmly grounded in the open source Webkit browser engine.

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The hire is for a “mid-senior level” Webkit developer who will have responsibility especially for “maintainability, scalability and reliability of the system.” The position apparently is fleshing out the program team RIM reeled in when it acquired Torch Mobile in August, creator of the Iris mobile browser, also based on Webkit. Iris is no longer downloadable, an indication that the programming team has been refocused entirely on creating a modern browser for the BlackBerry OS.

The acquisition marked how seriously RIM is taking the widening browser gulf between the BlackBerry smartphones and such rivals as the iPhone. The Safari browser, and the Palm Pre, with its Palm webOS browser, are both built on Webkit, as is Google Chrome and the Nokia browser for the S60 mobile phone operating system. Webkit was developed by Apple out of the code originally created by the KDE project, and released as open source in mid-2005.

All of these and many others seriously outstrip the current BlackBerry browser. CIO reporter Al Sacco, himself an avid BlackBerry user, notes that Web pages with lots of Javascript bring the browser to its knees. There are frequent problems with rendering common Web pages. Adding insult to injury, the browser is the “mandatory-default” browsing application for all BlackBerries, he notes. Some BlackBerry users have turned to a mobile browser from Opera instead.

RIM is a late arrival to the development of a powerful mobile Web browser. Not all use Webkit, but all of them exploit dramatic improvements in Javascript processing, and radically redesigned GUIs that, following Safari on the iPhone, make effective use of touch and gestures.

The results are dramatic, as the iPhone demonstrated. By early 2008, less than a year after being released, the iPhone’s Safari browser was the No. 1 mobile browser in the United States, and No. 2 globally, trailing the Nokia Web browser, according to StatCounter. Google released data early in 2008 showing that Christmas 2007 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.

Another technology trend is intersecting with these advances: the rapid evolution of the HTML 5 and Cascading Style Sheets 3 Web standards. Some see the requirements of mobile development as being the real driving force behind fast and widespread adoption of both standards.

For example, two new HTML 5 APIs, database and application cache (“appcache”) are already being implemented by Google in last Spring’s new mobile version of Gmail. Database lets a mobile browser locally store Gmail messages in a local MySQL database; AppCache lets it locally store the Gmail functions and user interface in JavaScript and CSS files.

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John Cox

Network World
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