With the advent of Safari on the iPhone there’s been a bit of a shake-up in the mobile internet experience – or at least the expectations.
Out of the box Windows Mobile comes with cut down version of Internet Explorer called IEMobile (aka PocketIE) which, while reliable, is getting a little long in the tooth.
IEMobile is based on IE5 so there are many sites that can take advantage of the capabilities available on mobile devices today. With the advent of IE6 for Windows Mobile things should only get better.
Of course, that’s in the future – what can you do today for a better browsing experience?
Opera has been offering a couple of options for mobile browsers for a while now.
OperaMini works on any phone that has Java support and is ideal for lower powered devices or phones with smaller screens or slower connection as they offload a lot of the layout to their servers and only send an optimized view to the device. Obviously this limits functionality and causes some compromises with what you see.
Opera Mobile is a good enough app that some handsets are now shipping with it as the default, pre-installed browser. For the rest of us, it’s available (30 day trial and then US$24)
NetFront from Access
Access technologies have a long and fairly interesting history. They have been developing their mobile browser platform for some years – initially on PalmOS and now extending to other phone and embedded platforms, including Windows Mobile. As an interesting aside Access actually purchased the PalmOS assets and continue to develop that platform.
NetFront is usually only available pre-installed by OEMs but until August 31 you can play with their Windows Mobile Concept version on any device (they’re asking for feedback so I guess they’re serious about the platform).
Rendering is fast and very fluid. On the same page it does a marginally better job than Opera Mobile – delivering a page very quickly and making scrolling, zooming and navigating very natural. The browser shows a floating transparent pane that shows the whole page and where you are so you don’t get lost.
On the SGH-i780 this does a great job. On the slightly faster HTC Advantage (X7500) I was surprised at how fast it was rendering and scrolling and actually overshot a couple of times!
Which is the best?
Both of these browsers actually do an amazing job. When you take into account the connectivity and processing power of a typical Windows Mobile device anything close to the desktop experience is pretty awesome. Hopefully the IEMobile 6 team are having a very good look at these to see where the bar is for on-device rendering. Microsoft have announced that both Silverlight and Flash will be available so hopefully we’ll start to see full support for these become available over time.
But on-device isn’t the only solution as demonstrated by Opera Mini and the Microsoft DeepFish research project.
Currently in limited beta Skyfire promises “the PC web. Real Fast. On your phone."
Similar to DeepFish and Opera Mini they direct traffic through a proxy and optimize it for deliver. Going beyond those similar services they re-work the content to actively deliver the very interactive features desktop users take for granted – ajax, dynamic HTML, java and fully functional Flash – yes, even all those youTube videos can now be experienced just like on your desktop!
One of the features I really like about it is the ability to zoom in to any part of the page, or zoom back out to see the overall context. It reminds me of the Hard Rock memorabilia experience – as you zoom in the detail resolves as additional data is transmitted.
I was very impressed with SkyFire on touch devices like the TyTN II, it was when I used it on my Shadow – dare I say it’s an iPhone like experience on a smartphone!
It’s in limited beta while they finish the product and get to grips with the scaling (pushing all that traffic through their servers is going to take some management) but go to the site and sign up to get in the queue.
So, which is the best?
After having used all of these alternatives for some time now I don’t have one firm favorite. The ajax support in Opera Mobile is a big positive. The speed and ease of use in NetFront makes it hard to pass up. The “full” experience in Skyfire makes it perfect for some content (though I tend to avoid it for very "forms” intensive sites)
All of them promise great things for the future as competition on the platform, and with Safari on iPhone and browser on some of the UMPC and MID devices is going to make things better for the typical user.