Attack of the mobile browsers
Firefox, Opera, and a horde of mobile upstarts give iPhone, iPad, and Android users plenty of alternativesFollow @peterwayner
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.