The Mobile Web Browser

Remember back in the days of the browser wars? We chose a browser and that was what defined our web experience. In the end Microsoft won with Internet Explorer. They had the desktop marketshare and IE was integrated into the OS to the point that it was (arguably) the fastest and easiest to use. Eventually sites were just built for IE only, or Netscape Navigator only. But a new browser war is forming. In these “modern times” the web browsers are integrated into the phone’s OS as IE was with Windows 95, and we pretty much live with them the way they are: Safari on iPhone, whatever is labeled “Browser” on the Android and BlackBerry, Internet Explorer on Windows Phone, etc.. But a new battle for browser market-share is forming with Opera and Mozilla drawing battle lines.

When the iPhone first came out it made waves. It had probably the best web browser available on a phone. Apple was banking on people using the web on their phones. Apple’s Mobile Safari had a lot of tricks built into, especially CSS tricks, to make a consistent “Apple-style” UI with mobile websites. Unfortunately at the time consumers did not agree, and developers demanded a programming API to write native applications instead of web applications.

Things are coming around full circle now. Late last year RIM (BlackBerry) CEO Jim Balsillie said you don’t need apps, you need the web. Its a funny thing to say, because when Steve Jobs said it he was wrong – and especially when there are so many thousands of apps in the various “App Stores” out there. Its funnier still that I think he might be right this time.

The desktop internet world has matured but the fragmentation we saw during the browser wars is coming back in the mobile world. One interesting fact though is that the default iPhone web browser (Safari) and the Android web browser are both based on the same desktop browser engine: WebKit – the same WebKit that Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome desktop browsers are. The new BlackBerry Torch has the new BlackBerry OS 6 also including a WebKit based web browser. This is good news: WebKit is one of the best HTML5 browsers available right now. Both Safari and the Android Browser score pretty high on Html5Test.com, (I don’t have the exact figures) so I assume that the BlackBerry would as well. With all of these big companies working on the same open-source project we are seeing some good results in the WebKit area!

I recently loaded up the Firefox Mobile browser on an Android phone I have and I was EXTREMELY impressed despite the fact it is beta bits! It has the best mobile HTML5 support I’ve seen in a mobile device (207 + 9 points at Html5Test.com when 3.6.12 for desktop gets 139 + 4!). The best part is the navigation and control though: like tabs on the left and the back/forward buttons on the right. It was designed for mobile from the start.

Opera Mini is another popular browser, though slower than Webkit and Firefox, it still has some other nice features – and has been around a lot longer. It (severely) lacks the HTML5 support of Firefox and Safari (only 27 points!), it does have the nice “Speed Dial” feature. Opera is really pushing the mobile browsers though, so hopefully they will be innovating in HTML5 quite a bit further, but despite that it is still a decent mobile browser. Opera is available on almost any smartphone too (even iPhone!), while Firefox is really only on Android.

I have Windows Phone 7 with mobile IE, like its desktop cousin it is easily the worst of the modern mobile browsers, thankfully the Mango update to Phone 7 will bring more advanced features, but it will still leave mobile IE way behind. Despite the lack of features and polish in Safari though, IE is a very capable browser.

It doesn’t look like fragmentation will stop, since each browser is defined and tied to the phone OS (just like the IE bad-old days), but this time it looks like the competitors are on a more level playing field.

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