Mobile Web browsers are falling into two camps – those that connect directly to the Internet, as on a PC, and those that filter through carrier-controlled proxy servers. Each approach has pros and cons. Which will prevail?
The IBM Simon, launched in 1993 as the original combination of a PDA and cellular phone, was still unproven when Microsoft and Netscape fought the first browser war. Now, 15 years later, smartphones are everywhere and serve as the newest front in the same struggle.
In smartphones, the jostling is not just about market share for viewing static pages, but rather a disagreement about the fundamental methods of accessing and navigating the dynamic content of Web 2.0. Among the hot issues is the extent to which mobile network operators should influence mobile browser companies’ technical roadmaps.
For example, when building a mobile browser, there are two popular ways of retrieving information from the Internet – the full-client approach and the thin-client/proxy approach. With full clients, all of the processing and rendering is done locally on the device, just like on desktop computers. With thin clients, queries are sent to middleware servers hosted by the browser company or service provider, which typically fetch a compressed or lightweight version of the data to send back to the device.
These options usually result in tradeoffs between features and speed – should users wait longer for information in the exact form as the content owner intended it to be seen, or should they get more instant access but tweaked for mobile devices without any guarantees of accuracy? Should they be able to go anyplace on the whole Internet, or be limited to destinations vetted by network operators?
INTERNET EXPLORER MOBILE
Microsoft considers it very important to meet carrier needs, especially in helping carriers deliver premium services, said Internet Explorer Mobile product manager Karen Wong-Duncan. “In our conversations with carriers, we’ve definitely talked about what are the key sites that you’re seeing your traffic going toward. There has also been movement toward more narrow services – uploading photos, getting music, and any kind of location-based services are very much of interest. I think there’s an element of talking about browsing and there’s an element of what kind of services can you enable on top of that.”
Internet Explorer Mobile defaults to specialized mobile versions of Web pages whenever they are available. But that will soon change. “We’re expanding our horizons from just a mobile-optimized Web story to what some people call an open browsing or full browsing story,” Wong-Duncan said. For end users, “If you can’t do what you expect to do, that really breaks down the value,” she said.
Microsoft will upgrade Internet Explorer Mobile by adding Adobe Flash support, so users can visit pages like YouTube, and will add more levels of zooming and panning. The code will ship to handset makers in the third quarter and to end users by the end of this year. Such upgrades may sound benign, but carriers could use them to offer services such as sophisticated mobile entertainment subscriptions. Conversely, Internet Explorer Mobile already has a feature to provide Internet access via wire to laptops, but carriers usually opt to disable that technology so they can charge for similar services. “They are looking to recoup on their investment on 3G networks. They are looking for innovation on services on top of that connectivity,” Wong-Duncan said.
At the open-source Mozilla organization, which makes the Firefox desktop browser, developers are working on a mobile version called Fennec scheduled for an alpha release this summer and a beta by the end of this year. Fennec is being optimized for performance with help from chip manufacturers and handset companies, but its designers have a more libertarian approach to network operators.
|Sullivan: Mobile Web browsers should work just like on desktop computers, but it’s up to carriers to decide to embrace that model.|
“We’re going to do what we always do, which is build what we think is the best user experience, which means the most open,” said Jay Sullivan, Mozilla’s mobile director. “If carriers enable that, then they can take advantage of this round of innovation. If they put up a lot of walls, then they won’t be able to take as full advantage,” he said.
Mozilla learns about carriers’ wishes through the LiMo (Linux for Mobile) Foundation, which includes NTT DoCoMo, Orange, SK Telecom, Vodafone and most recently Verizon Wireless. Mozilla found through those connections that carriers generally want a level of control for the start page, Sullivan said. “There is precedent for some compromise as long as it doesn’t completely circumvent our principles. There are [also] a lot of questions around security, which is great; we want to have those discussions,” he said.
However, proxy browsers are also gaining momentum. A successful proxy vendor is Opera, which also makes desktop browsers and a full-client mobile browser specifically for Symbian and Windows Mobile phones. Meanwhile a startup called Skyfire Labs is getting good reviews, but its technology will remain in beta tests until the end of this year. Research In Motions’ BlackBerry Browser has a proxy approach as well (except when users go online through a Wi-Fi connection). All three companies use compression software to deliver pages faster than full client browsers can. This can be important for subscribers wanting to maximize their data plans. That may seem counter to what carriers desire, but the proxy middleware makes it easier for carriers to control the content that users can access. So carriers have to make a decision about priorities when they choose which kinds of browsers to offer.
Opera obliges the wireless industry by making its Mini browser available for embedding into handsets or for consumers to download over-the-air. “On a fundamental model, we’re not proponents of walled gardens because it’s not what the users want. However, the carriers are making money with this. So we’re trying to do the best of both worlds. We’re very much targeting the operator market and we understand the concerns they have. Close cooperation with operators is necessary to drive innovation,” said Olug Tukh, Opera’s product manager. For now Opera’s proxy servers are in Norway, but the company plans to put more servers around the world, he said.
|Tukh: Proxy connections are ideal for mobile phones with limited resources and for carriers to offer premium services.|
Similarly, “Right now I think the mobile market’s in its infancy,” said Bhanu Sharma, director of product management at Skyfire. “It helps you do the most basic thing which is retain customers. But we’re over and above that; we’re looking at a variety of things for Web 2.0 business models. We’ll see if premium Internet services are what people care about. We’re actively talking to a lot of handset manufacturers and carriers to learn from them,” he said.
Carriers are asking Skyfire to develop small applications that could involve subscription fees, known as widgets in the desktop world. “This is the year when the average user on the street figures out these are mini-laptops in their pockets. We thought initially when we started working with [carriers] that there would be divergent needs, but kudos to them, nothing stands out that doesn’t match,” Sharma said.
Other than a desire to see browser companies make user interfaces that resemble the Apple iPhone – a goal indicated by every browser company interviewed for this article, including Microsoft which has an experimental but publicly available proxy browser called Deepfish – it may be too early for any carrier to know which decisions about browsers are the correct ones. For example, Sprint Nextel includes both types of browser options in its new iPhone-esque Samsung Instinct phone.
“I think we’re probably still at a point where we’re going to have to tackle those questions when they come to fruition or see how they change browsing habits. At this point, we don’t necessarily have a position on browser features that we would restrict or disallow,” said Sprint Nextel spokeswoman Emmy Anderson. Because data plans contribute to increasing average revenue per user, “Right now, we’re on the side of encouraging people to use data, whatever that may be for,” she said.
Sprint plans to announce more options related to browser applications later this year. Details are not yet available but a variety of strategies are being considered. “We’ll continue to focus this year on finding out what the key factors are,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we’re in a situation where we have all the answers.”