Mobile Browsers : Staying Connected on the Go !



A few years ago, WAP (wireless application protocol) was considered a luxury, and a lot of us had the “My service provider’s cooler than yours,” arguments, based solely on the cost of internet access. I was, at one point, paying Rs 499 per month to get internet access on my phone. When it comes to electronics and technology, the meek mobile phone has inherited the Earth. With a rather large percentage of people owning one, it’s obvious to everyone that networking the world is easiest achieved through mobile devices. Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as hooking everyone up with a mobile internet connection.

We have the goal – connect the world; get them on the net. We have the technology: GPRS, EDGE, 3G, Wi-Fi, etc. However, as is usually the case, software plays spoilsport.

Just browsing

No two phone manufacturers seem to agree on any one browser. Although it may not seem like a problem, it actually wouldn’t hurt for someone to have a Microsoft-like strangle-hold on mobile browsers – the way IE is on the desktop. Before you gawk in disbelief at that statement, finish reading the article and perhaps it will begin to make sense.

Basically, there is a need for standards, as the lack of them is confusing everyone – you, me, developers, mobile manufacturers, ISPs; effectively chucking a rather large spanner in the works.

Order to chaos 

Thankfully, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium, founded by Tim Berners-Lee) is trying to set some standards here, and ensure that we all have similar experiences when browsing the mobile web. Mobile analytics shows that millions of people are using numerous devices; W3C is trying to bring a common standard for all, no matter what handsets we use.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to browse the mobile web the same way we do on our desktops? Barring a few sites that are “optimized” for Internet Explorer, the “desktop web”, is basically standardized. When it comes to mobile browsers, however, the reality is quite the opposite.

Apart from the W3C, the Web Standards project is also involved in creating tests that browsers (especially mobile browsers) need to pass before they can claim to conform to standards. More information in the box “Acid3 test”. Staying connected Browsers that will let you get your daily dose of the net, on your mobile... Developer Corner Language of the year Python was voted the Language of the year in 2008 by linuxquestions.org — for the second year in a row.

ACID3 Test

The Web Standards Project has a battery of tests to verify how a browser follows the accepted web standards, and how a browser displays them. Standards are important for the web, and the WSP is doing its bit to try and get all major browsers to conform to set guidelines. Even those of you who use a desktop to surf the net will have come across some site or the other that just breaks when you view it — with text that refuses to stay in its box, images that refuse to resize right, or menus that seem to act all crazy. Sometimes it’s the site’s coder who have screwed up, but sometimes, it’s your browser that’s coughed and died, because it just doesn’t support a certain web standard. If everyone followed standards, you could just use your favorite browser, visit any site, and never have to see terribly broken layouts or renders. The Acid3 test is supposed to tell you whether your browser is following the coding rules, or not. Anyone can run the Acid3 test by visiting http://acid3.acidtests.org. More information on the various Acid tests are available at www.webstandards.org.

Scoring (desktop browsers):

IE7: 12/100
IE8: 21/100
Firefox 3.03: 71/100
Opera 9.63: 85/100
Google Chrome / Safari 3.2: 75/100

Interestingly, newer versions of both Web Kit and Presto (that’s Safari/Chrome and Opera to regular folk) pass the Acid3 test with flying colors, and although IE8 has improved on IE7s scores, it’s still pathetically placed. Now if someone could only get Microsoft’s IE team to start caring, we’d hope to see some improvements in that score.

Mobile Browsers

Let’s take a look at what’s on offer for those of you who can’t wait to get online from your mobiles.

Android

Google’s open source initiative brought us the Android mobile OS, and although there aren’t too many devices that run it just yet, you can count on Google’s past success in everything they do to ensure that this will change soon. Android’s browser has got some rave reviews from early adopters. It uses the Web Kit rendering engine, which is basically an API that Apple derived from the KHTML software library that is used in KDE’s Konqueror browser. The browser is fast, renders well, and with Web Kit promising to be one of the few to pass the Acid3 test soon, there are certainly not going to be too many formatting errors. The android browser scores 72/100 in the Acid3 test.

Safari

Mobile users will have used this if they coughed up the dough for an iPhone, or an iPod Touch, and they will be perhaps the most content of all us mobile net junkies. Safari is the best mobile browser yet — it is fast, renders impeccably, scrolls and zooms beautifully, and since it’s found on Apple devices, the multi-touch really makes it simple for anyone to use. It’s still got a long way to go through — it needs to add Flash support, fails the Acid3 test (74/100), and when pages break, they break terribly. Remember, Web Kit claims to pass the Acid3 test with Safari 4.

Opera Mobile

This is Opera’s Windows mobile and Symbian browser, which is bundled in some devices, and available for download for all others. Opera have their own closed-source browser engine called Presto, and as you can see from the desktop version’s results, the Acid3 results, although not perfect, seem to suggest that Presto certainly follows more web standards than the rest. Opera Mobile 9.5 beta scores 73/100 in Acid3, and the tests it fails are less likely to affect page layouts. A look at the screenshots should tell you what you need to know.

Nokia Symbian 60

Nokia’s S60-based phones use a browser that’s also based on Web Kit, like Android and Safari, but somehow it doesn’t do as well as its cousins. It scores 47/100 in the Acid3 test, and generally does not feel as fast and smooth (rendering) as its cousins. The one good feature it does add, which its cousins need to seriously think about, is Flash Lite support. There’s still a lot of tweaking needed, and Flash-lite on our test phone (a Nokia E51) was buggy and slow because it ate a lot of resources – but at least it worked. There are some decent Flash Lite applications available, just make sure you don’t use any of the screensavers – they just eat into your battery life.

Flash Lite

Flash Lite is Adobe’s way of bring Flash content to the mobile phone specifically, and mobile devices in general. The Lite part of its name should immediately tell you that this is not a full blown Flash player, like the version for desktop browsers or Adobe’s Shockwave player, but it does have some interesting uses. You should check if your device is Flash Lite capable, and if it is, make sure to visit Adobe’s Marketplace at http://www.adobe.com/cfusion/ exchange/. Just search for Flash Lite, and you should find hundreds of apps that may interest you.

Internet Explorer

IE on Windows Mobile is a barely able to render anything properly. If you thought Acid3 tests scores for its desktop version were bad, you have no clue how bad, bad can be. With so many sites breaking, it doesn’t make sense to even bother here. It’s obvious that IE has a long way to go before it’s suitable for smaller screens. For now, we’d rather urge Windows Mobile users to download Opera Mobile, which may not run as well as it does on Symbian, but at least you’ll be able to surf the net!

Opera Mini

The best part about Opera Mini is that it can be installed on almost any mobile device – whether the iPhone, any Symbian device or even the run of the mill, everyday (Java-enabled) mobile phone. Opera mini is specialized for small-screen browsing, and renders really well. Opera Mini scores 80/100 in the Acid3 test, which is commendable. Mini uses Opera servers to compress, reformat and optimize data for your small screen, which results in faster page transfers, and little or no processing power required on your end. Unlike Opera Mobile, where your mobile does all the processing and page rendering, Mini lets a server farm somewhere in cyber space worry about all that, and just displays content on your screen. It’s also a good application for those on a pay-per-use data plan, because, for all practical purposes, Mini zips (as in compression, and speed) the net for you, saving you precious bandwidth and time. I for one am thankful for it, because I barely get 2 or 3 KBps over my pathetic GPRS connection, but can still do everything I need to online, from anywhere, using Mini.

Now what?

As usual, there needs to be some logical conclusion to the whole thing, right? Wrong. We still have a long way to go before the “mobile web” is as accessible as the “desktop web”. Recent news reports have suggested that the number of mobile users globally (and especially in India), are increasing exponentially. Much before we have one laptop per child we might end up having one mobile per child, and this is something that all mobile service providers are well aware of. The mobile is the new PC, and everyone and their uncles are hopping on to the mobile space to try something.

While this is great news for those of us who love the convenience of mobile connectivity, all we can do is hope that groups like the W3C and the WSP succeed in encouraging the use of standards, or else it might not be as much of a runaway success story as the desktop web is.

Still, with some mobile devices starting to match the processing power of a 6 year old PC, perhaps we’re all going to be thrown into another race for performance, and will again skillfully adapt Moore’s Law for the mobile space to justify constant upgrades and doubling of features on mobiles. Perhaps we’re wasting time worrying about which browser to use, because in the near future we might be bickering over which OS to use and which antivirus software is best... whatever the outcome, we’ll still be here to help point the way.




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