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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Full web browsing on a phone? Not yet

The received wisdom in the mobile industry is that continued browser evolution is making handsets capable delivering a "full Internet experience", like that on a broadband-connected PC.

I think that's over-stretching the capabilities. Yes, the iPhone renders a lot of web pages beautifully, but it's still not supporting things like Flash. And that's the absolute pinnacle of web-on-mobile. When you move down to the next tier, you get options like Webkit-on-Series 60. Which is a lot better than a few years ago, and can do a decent job of many websites, but which gets seriously thrown off-course by some of the newer and flashier ones.

My E71 consistently crashes when I try to use my new favourite travel-booking website, Kayak - there's no way I'd trust it all the way through to a transaction. It's got plenty of other annoying niggles as well, such as the switching between multiple windows. Plus it's still dependent on a whole range of network-side issues (and maybe handset software or memory problems too) like click-to-see time, that make web surfing a lot less pleasant and immediate than on a PC.

It'll be interesting to see what Google does with Chrome on mobile. And yes, there's all sorts of widgety goodness and Operatic performances that make the best of the small device.

But at the end of the day, they're all still "best efforts" approximations to the proper web, on a proper computer. I reckon Apple & a couple of others will start to trend asymptotically towards real "web" experience, but that will take a couple of years. And for that sort of performance to reach down to the midrange of handsets and beyond? I'll be surprised if we see a truly first-class browsing experience on a $50 handset (and its typical host network) before the middle of next decade.


Ram said...


I have seen your name quoted in articles which talk about you questioning the viability of transcoding business models - the implication is that full web browsers will become prevalent in more phones. Recall that even S40 is talking about supporting WebKit in middle-range Nokia phones. Am I missing something?

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Ram

Initially, I thought that Webkit would give a "full" web experience.

My current view is that it is provides an at-best 6/10 experience, on a high-end device.

I'm unconvinced this will translate to anything close to proper IE/Firefox/Chrome any time soon, especially on featurephones.

The bottom line is that both Webkit and transcoding are second-class Internet citizens, at best. Neither is suitable as a PC-replacement approach for the foreseeable future, if ever.


max said...

I'm not sure I'd agree with flash being the pinnacle of web experience. I for one do not miss the annoying adverts that you get on many websites.

Whilst I agree that no web browser is perfect, having used the iPhone heavily for 6 months, despite being initially anti iPhone I am now completely sold on the safari browser and have never found myself wanting or going to a PC because I couldn't see something.

And I guess that's the crux of it, we think we need flash but when it's not there, does anyone really notice.

TacoEater said...

I definitely would not say Flash is the pinnacle; I use the web everyday fine without it. I have never read a definition of Web 2.0 that mentions Flash as critical. In my mind, the main technologies important for today's web are a Javascript engine that handles XHR for interactive response to the server and preferably 1.5+, latest CSS engine, latest DOM, and HTML 4.0. However, not sure how this affects the mobile industry as that can be a lot of little calls back to the server.

Dean Bubley said...

Max, TacoEater

No, Flash isn't the pinnacle. And it's worth remembering that Web 1.0 is still much more important than Web 2.0 in terms of most sites on the net.

But ultimately, mobile phone browsers need to be as good at rendering *non-standard* web pages as their PC equivalents. I find that a lot of my favourite pages don't render well on Webkit-on-Symbian, for example. Now that's not up to iPhone standards, but it ought still to be good enough as a 2nd-tier contender.

If the iPhone stays in a class of one, then that won't be good enough for mobile web access to become mainstream.

Examples: trying to respond to comments on this page is impossible on my E71. Similarly, the Java stock-price ticker on the Reuters website crashed the phone the other day. If I can't even do simple things like that on what ought to be good 2nd-tier phone browser, what hope is there for someone on a midrange featurephone?