Evolution of mobile web browsing

Evolution of mobile web browsing
Mobile web browsing has become a must-have feature for cell phones in the recent years. Thanks to the significant advancement in technologies, we have now reached a stage of development where we can easily surf the web on a phone (almost) just like on a computer. But how did we end up with the great experience that Safari, webOS and other WebKit-based browsers provide? To understand the present, you must understand the past, as some people say. In this article we’ll take a trip back to times when WAP browsers were all the rage, Google was still a small privately held company, and it was perfectly normal to actually have a liking for women… Then, we will remind ourselves of how the whole cell phone browsing revolution began, and which are the premium handsets for surfing the web out there.

First steps…

First of all, we would like to pay a tribute to what’s believed to be the first mobile browser ever, NetHopper for the Apple Newton platform. A minute of silence, please! Okay, now we move on to a more familiar technology WAP. Introduced in 1997, the WAP standard was created with the purpose of showing internet content on mobile clients, such as cell phones. Well, in the general case, phones equipped with WAP browsers (then also called “micro browsers”) could only display optimized WAP sites. Some, however, were capable of rendering more complex HTML pages, although the results were pretty poor as a whole. In 1999, the i-Mode technology was introduced as an alternative to WAP, though it could only display i-Mode-based web pages and got much less attention worldwide.

In the mean time, Microsoft was ready with its Pocket Internet Explorer 3.0. The browser had support for HTML content, cookies, image resizing and the standardized version of JavaScript, called JScript. Later versions of the application brought ActiveX, CSS and XML support and more. Starting 2003, Opera Mobile was also available for the WM platform. Still, the overall experience when surfing the web could not be compared in any way with today’s much more advanced browsers. Content could not be rendered as on a computer and the whole process could take forever.

Back in the present…

It wasn’t until 2005 when Opera Mini was launched, bringing the web to almost every Java-enabled feature- and smartphone. As of now, Opera Mini is still the most popular mobile browser in the world. It is fast, renders pages almost like a computer browser (except for Flash content, of course) and last but not least, it compresses the web content on an Opera server to not only speed up the loading process, but also to save you some money from data traffic.

The beauty and ease of surfing the web on a touchscreen however brought another revolution in the mobile browsing experience. To be exact, it was the beauty of the iPhone and Safari that took the whole mobile browsing thing to the next level. Smooth page scrolling, never before seen pinch zooming… no one was ready to retaliate in a truly equal manner. Not until last year when we saw high-end smartphones like the HTC HD2, which mainly relied on hardware power (for the record, almost two times more powerful than the iPhone 3GS’s) in order to provide a similar experience.

If the iPhone is just not your type however, there are a few decent alternatives now. To start with, you can always go for the Palm Pre. Palm’s webOS platform came with a pretty capable WebKit browser, which isn’t really as good, but still damn capable. Next up, we have Android. This operating system is getting better with each new version, and so does its browser. Again, a WebKit-based one, the Android browser still can’t beat Safari and the webOS browser, especially if we talk about its U.S. edition, which lacks multitouch to assist its inadequate double tap zooming. Despite this, it is more than usable.

Modern featurephones have also gotten their share of decent web browsing. For example, some of Samsung’s phones like the Jet are equipped with a pretty nice WebKit browser. Sony Ericsson also has a good piece of software on some of its non-smart handsets.

What’s ahead of us…?

Obviously, it’s the ability to view all kinds of Flash and HTML5 content with your phone’s browser. Yes, Skyfire already plays Flash, but it is only available for Windows Mobile and Symbian S60 as of now and doesn’t really deliver a great performance. Nokia’s recently released N900 has maybe the most advanced browsing technology with full support for Flash, but we guess it will take quite some time before we see it in a wider range of devices. Microsoft has made an attempt with the latest Internet Explorer but has managed to get only basic Flash support working, in the form of playing embedded YouTube clips and nothing more.

As of now, it is expected that true Flash 10.1 support will become available sometime in the first half of 2010, with the first platforms to get it probably webOS and Android. As for the iPhone, so far we have not seen an Apple official go out and say that the feature is coming, but there’s another fact we should have in mind. As we are beginning to talk more and more about HTML5 and how it will replace Adobe’s Flash plug-in sometime in the near future, it’s good to know that Apple’s mobile Safari (as well as the Android browser) already supports HTML5 elements. What this means is that when the time comes, Flash support will be no longer needed, so who knows, maybe Apple has decided to skip Flash and just wait for the HTML5 roll out. But this, of course, is just a speculation.

Of course, manufacturers and developers have some more work to do, in order to deliver a truly great experience on all platforms, but it now looks like that we are almost there – a time when browsing the net on your phone will be just as easy, as on the PC.

sources: Wikipedia, Opera

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