The Mobile Web

John Donovan, Editor-in-Chief, Low-Power Design

John Donovan

According to reports, 40 percent of U.S. mobile customers surf the Internet using their mobile phones. My guess is that 100% of them spend at least some of that time cursing under their breath.

Mobile phones still have a long way to go before you can navigate the Internet with the same ease that you experience on your PC. Intel has capitalized on this user dissatisfaction to create the Mobile Internet Device (MID) category, which is designed to (1) deliver a "better Internet user experience" and (2) provide an end run around ARM’s hegemony in the mobile phone arena.

On the other hand, mobile phones have come a long way since the largely text-based Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) browsers were introduced in 1997. The phones on which these early micro-browsers ran lacked the memory and processing power to render HTML properly, much less JavaScript. So these browsers ran subsets of HTML such as compact HTML and the Wireless Markup Language (WML). WAP browsers were restricted to sites that supported WML, since the phone was basically a thin client and the site a proxy server that would translate content into WML before delivering it to the client. The number of sites was limited by carriers who restricted access to only those sites that they had licensed. The result was a small walled garden of badly delivered content.

Today both the hardware and software required to deliver the full Mobile Web on cell phones is almost completely up to speed. The real breakthrough was Apple's iPhone, which runs Mac OS X and the Safari browser and has a 620 MHz ARM processor, 128 MB of RAM, and up to 16 GB of flash memory. The iPhone’s is a highly capable Internet device—the first MID.

Now that handset hardware is no longer a bottleneck, the real action is in the new mobile browsers. Chief among these are Opera Mobile, which runs on Windows; Internet Explorer Mobile, which also runs on Windows; Apple's Safari (Mac OS X); the Blackberry Browser (Blackberry OS); Google's Chrome Mobile (Linux); and the Nokia S60 Browser (Symbian OS).

The real improvement over the old WAP browsers is in the rendering engines. Browsers consist of an interface and a rendering engine that turns HTML, XML, JavaScript and other code into a format that can be viewed onscreen. The new rendering engines are so efficient that they free handsets from the old WAP client/server model, enabling them to effectively render any and all websites. The Mobile Opera browser is based on the Presto 2.1 rendering engine; it's included in smartphones from Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, HTC and Sony Ericsson. The Safari, Chrome and Nokia S60 browsers are all based on the WebKit rendering engine.

The inability to run JavaScript held back mobile browsers in the past, but no longer. Google developed its V-8 JavaScript rendering engine for the first Android smart phone, they HTC G-1. The V-8 is a JavaScript compiler rather than an interpreter, enabling it to run several times faster than previous JavaScript engines. Other mobile browsers have also upgraded their Java capabilities.

Mobile browsers have suffered from an inability to run plug-ins, most notably Adobe Flash, a shortcoming that Intel has taken pains to highlight. But this month Adobe and ARM announced that they are working together to port Flash to ARM processors; and Qualcomm has announced similar support for Flash in their handset chipsets.

Given the small screen size and ergonomic shortcomings of handsets, you'll still prefer to Web surf on your PC. It's also unlikely that web-enabled smartphones will keep the MID category from taking off, since many people will still prefer a larger screen size, as long as they can still make calls.

But the Mobile Web for handsets—fully capable of handling rich Web 2.0 content—has finally arrived.


This article first appeared in the January, 2009 issue of Portable Design. Reprinted with permission.

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