Attack of the mobile browsers

Firefox, Opera, and a horde of mobile upstarts give iPhone, iPad, and Android users plenty of alternatives

If you are among the fading majority, you'll be reading this story in a cavernous desktop browser with screen real estate that goes on and on like the Montana sky. If you're from the future, you're pinching and sliding your fingers over a smartphone screen that seems tiny until you stick it in a belt holster and curse because it's not small enough to fit comfortably in your pocket. The mobile Web browser may not be as easy on the eyes, but hey, you might be reading it while swinging on a hammock over a beautiful beach while drinking fancy beverages.

The vision of a future dominated by smartphones is well understood by everyone, even if it's about as likely to come true as the prediction that mainframes are finished. The desktops may never surrender to the tiny pocket browsers, but it doesn't matter because everyone is ready to fight over who will be the dominant renderer of HTML for the smartphones.

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The battle is even more pitched than the struggle for dominance over the desktop browser, but it's more nuanced and complicated because the platforms are more fragmented and constrained. The major phone companies exert some mixture of control over what runs on their hardware, and this is influencing the outcome. Apple, for instance, used to drag its heels on approving anything that would compete with Safari. Now it lets some in, but everyone watches its decisions with a wary eye.

The politics are only the beginning of the confusion because the hardware and software differences are significant. Phones from the same manufacturer with the same shell run different chip sets using different versions of the operating system. Some browsers look better on tablets than phones and vice versa. Although the use of virtual machines smoothes over some differences, the rapid evolution of the software stack creates other disparities.

Firefox, for instance, runs only on Android and Nokia phones. On the iPhone, Firefox synchronizes only bookmarks and other personalized information with your desktop browser. The official story doesn't always match reality. When I tried to install Firefox on my phone running Android 2.3, the Android Marketplace said it wouldn't work. My model wasn't approved.

There are also limits to the features. Some browsers brag about supporting Flash content, and they usually do a good job with it. Even though the Flash format is quite efficient, the content creators often build presentations that are too big for the small devices. In the end, Flash presentations, like David Lean movies, are a disappointment on the little screen.

All of this turmoil is creating opportunities. On the iPhone, the formerly unknown browsers are quite nice. They run quite well and sometimes offer the ability to run Flash content directly because they have compiled Flash into the stack. There are a surprisingly large number of new names appearing, and some are beginning to be mentioned in the same breath as the big browsers that dominate the desktop.

The turmoil is also changing the definition of what a browser might be. A number of small applications such as Instapaper, Flipboard, and Evernote never set out to be browsers, but people are using them to read Web pages. They may not be official browsers, but they're certainly vehicles for consuming Web content.

While the proliferation of competition is probably good for users in the long run, it's bound to bring plenty of confusion to the Web developers who want to do a good job for all browsers. In my experiments, I often started with digg.com and tried random websites. During these trips, I found significant differences in the ways the websites are rendered. The pages all seem to let you browse and click, but the appearances are wildly different in the assorted browsers.

These variations aren't always the browser's fault. Some websites do a better job of recognizing the different User Agent strings and some don't. It's not uncommon for the server to redirect a browser from the Safari client to the mobile version but send the request from Skyfire to the desktop version.

All of this makes it impossible to say much with any certainty about the space. Although many people may use the default browsers on their phones, a good number are gradually exploring other vehicles for conveying the content to our brains. We're not at the point of actual brain interfaces yet, but given the speed of development it's not hard to imagine it won't be long.

Mobile browser No. 1: Firefox
Firefox lovers can take their plug-in architecture with them in their pocket now that the Firefox browser runs on Android and Nokia (Maemo) phones. That statement is a bit too expansive because the executable works with only certain models and chip sets, but some of the most popular models are on that list.

The advantages are many if you're a Firefox fan. The HTML is rendered by Gecko -- the same engine that drives Firefox on the desktop -- not the built-in Android engine that many of the other mobile browsers use. That means the Web page will look like what you see on your desk, more or less, which makes life easier for the programmers who want to craft Web apps.

The browser itself welcomes plug-ins and extensions written in a form that's pretty similar to the desktop version. Many of the popular mobile plug-ins are the same as their popular desktop counterparts. For the developers, the migration is not much more difficult than thinking about how to jam the information into a smaller screen.

Although there are plenty of Firefox lovers, it's easy to find users who grouse about the speed. This will probably get better as the Mozilla developers roll out the latest versions of the desktop JavaScript interpreter; then again, it might not. Many of the tricks for speeding up the desktop browser require chewing up RAM, which is often in short supply on the smartphone.

Mobile browser No. 2: Opera Mini and Opera Mobile
The company that's known for building zippy desktop browsers, which often download and render content faster than the competition, is delivering the same features to the smartphone and tablet world. The Opera browser feels smoother and looks prettier than the standard models on the phone.

There are deeper advantages. For some time, Opera has been building its Turbo infrastructure, a huge collection of servers that act as proxies for browsing the Web. They collect the data, then compress it further. While desktop users may like the feature because it can speed up delivery of data, mobile users may like it even more -- especially if they're using data plans that measure consumption. It's more and more common to find mobile phone plans that include only the first 5GB or 10GB of data each month. Opera is not shy about pointing out the advantages of using this service.

One of the smarter things that Opera does is wrap text. The second round of mobile browsers tried to imitate their big-screen rivals on the desktop, often leading to much pinching and scrolling. Opera tries to word wrap the DIVs much more aggressively than the desktop browsers. It makes reading some pages much easier.

Additionally, Opera seems to have more of the features that we've grown accustomed to using on the desktop, and the company offers to sync the mobile with the desktop browser so that you have a consistent appearance. Thus, if you put a website on the speed-dial splash screen of your desktop, it can appear on your mobile as well. The mobile also has tabs, a long history, and a number of other features we're used to living without in a mobile browser.

Mobile browser No. 3: Boat Browser Mini
Boat Browser is a relatively simple and rather elegant browser for Android phones that seems to remind many people of using Safari on an iPhone. This is partly because of the color and partly because it doesn't have too many extra features. The performance is fairly snappy, and Boat Browser can play many Flash videos -- a notable departure from mobile Safari.

The settings section offers a wider collection of buttons and options, including the ability to set the "mobile view engine." You can clear the cache, toggle the full-screen mode, and even turn on the ability to "open pages in overview." On the HTML5Test.com site, Boat Browser scored 182 out of 400, just under what is common in this space.

When I was testing the browser, it suddenly disappeared from the Android Market, then reappeared in a new version two weeks later. No one made any official statement about why it was gone; in fact, it's difficult to know where an official statement about Boat Browser might come from. The lack of a serious Web page owned by the company should be reason enough to be curious about the provenance of the code. It's hard to imagine that someone would put this much effort into something with a malicious intent, but weirder things have happened.

Mobile browser No. 4: Dolphin Browser HD
There are two versions of the Dolphin browser for Android: the Mini version for Android 1.6 and later, and the HD version built for Android 2.0 and later devices. Both are nice, but most people with the chance to run the HD version should choose it because it has a number of extra features.

The most intriguing feature to me is the customizable command that reacts to a gesture. You can draw your own patterns on the screen, then link them to Web pages or actions. The browser offers a wide collection of standard actions; for instance, drawing a V on the screen will jump immediately to the bottom of the page.

There are even deeper options for customization. Dolphin, like the desktop version of Firefox, offers the opportunity to create plug-ins or add-ons. Some just change the look or theme, but others add functionality. One from Last.fm, for instance, will let you listen to your Last.fm stream while browsing. There are a fair number of interesting add-ons, but the options (about 50) are still far short of the desktop ecologies.

Other neat features are buried in the settings menu. I enjoyed changing the volume buttons into controls that move the Web page up and down. The User Agent is easy to change. These and dozens of other options make Dolphin one of the most intriguing alternatives for those who aren't content to use Android's standard browser.

Mobile browser No. 5: Skyfire
When the Flash war broke out between Apple and Adobe, the developers of Skyfire saw their chance. They compiled a Flash interpreter into their mobile browser for Android and iOS, and now Skyfire users can see Flash presentations even if they're using an iPhone. As I've mentioned, this isn't always a perfect combination because many Flash presentations are so large that they choke the connection or overwhelm the screen, but the possibility is there.

After the Flash integration, the most notable feature is the way the Skyfire browser pushes integration with social networking hubs such as Facebook and Twitter. To save you the agony of waiting several seconds or even longer for the news to arrive from Facebook about your BFF's latest OMG-inspiring tale, Skyfire caches a current version and calls it QuickView. One push and you can toggle between the Web and Facebook friends.

The integration with Facebook goes deeper. The Like button is always floating around on every single page you visit. If you want to share the words and images you're viewing, just one push will send them out to all friends. There's no need to waste seconds by flipping over to the Facebook QuickView.

That's not all. Some versions of Skyfire extract a separate RSS feed of links suggested by your friends. Skyfire will also compile a list of the most popular links throughout Facebook. No wonder Facebook says it's not building a browser -- Skyfire is doing a pretty good job already.

But it's not all Facebook all of the time. Skyfire has similar features that integrate with Twitter and Google Reader. If you want to save bookmarks, Delicious is a click away. If you want to save the text itself, Instapaper and Pinboard are there too.

Mobile browser No. 6: Miren
If there are any Web users who still believe that English is the lingua franca of the Web, they might want to try out the Miren browser for Android. While the English-language version is easy to understand and use, there's no doubt that the browser comes from China. I had to use the Google translator to read through Miren.cn and discover that the company's name can be roughly translated as "charming browser," a description that's a pretty good match.

On one hand, this browser doesn't offer any features that make it stand out from the other candidates. There are tabs and a nice set of bookmarks that appear on the splash screen, as with so many other browsers. But by the same token, Miren isn't missing any essential features. Most of the features that now seem sort of standard -- Flash, multitouch, pinching, and so on -- are supported. It's a very usable tool.

Miren may not be as slick or as graceful as other mobile browsers such as Opera, depending on your preferences. It felt a bit sluggish as I paged around, but I never encountered any glaring crashes. It's a perfectly nice Android browser.

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