Introduction to Phone Web Browsers

Times change. If Internet was the main tech revolution of 1990’s, mobile communications is the revolution of our time. The next step will be to fully merge these two concepts and allow users to browse the web via their phone at very cheap rates. Today, we look at the various offerings found on most phones. Our hope is that we will familiarize you with some of these solutions and so the next time you buy a phone, you actually also check what browser it’s using. That will be a good step towards making carriers and phone manufacturers aware that the mobile web users exist!Note: There are many mobile browsers out there, but we will focus on the most important ones. The ones we mention below make up to 99% of the phone market. The browsers below are in an order that we believe represents the best-to-worse (in our personal experience with them as both users and web developers).

Opera Mobile

In my experience, Opera Mobile (not to be confused with Opera Mini) is the best mobile browser out there today. Its latest version 8.51 supports all the bells and whistles its desktop counterpart does: CSS, Javascript, Ajax, WML, you name it. It also has a Small Screen Rendering mode that will make big sites fit on your small phone screen without the need of the horizontal scrollbar. Opera Mobile is mostly found as a stand-alone purchase for Windows and Symbian smartphones while it is also found on some Linux-based phones usually shipping in Asia. Some special-made ports are made to some Japanese phones, usually for Kyocera. Opera Mobile does a lot, but it does it on the expese of available RAM (just to start the application you will need about 4-5 MBs of RAM). This is the main reason why it mostly runs on PDAs, smartphone or high-end feature phones, and can’t be ported to more modest phones (that usually ship with less than 1 MB of RAM allocated for the web browser — more on this issue below).

Sample user agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Symbian OS; Nokia 6600/4.09.1; 6936) Opera 8.50 [en] (Nokia 6600 Series 60 phone)


And here we are: Opera’s biggest competitor, NetFront. Netfront is an embedded browser that has been ported almost everywhere: phones, PDAs, set top TV boxes, the Sony PSP and elsewhere. In fact, Netfront’s engine is the one powering Palm’s Blazer branded browser. Netfront 3.3 supports tabs, some CSS and some javascript, has a good support for Asian languages and three different ways to render a given page (at least one of the three algorithms produces a readable layout for a given complex web page). Netfront is mostly used by Sanyo in USA and DoCoMo in Japan as both companies embrace the i-Mode (HTML 3.2) as the best/easiest way to be compatible with web pages today without eating lots of CPU or memory (usually CSS and JS have that effect, that’s why these technologies are not particularly desirable on phones that have limited resources). Lately, Netfront had a breakthrough and acquired contracts with Sony Ericsson for its high-end feature phones line (W810i, W550i, W900i). Netfront requires about 5 MBs of RAM to start up and its codesize is at about 4 MBs (depending the complexity of the site you try to render you will need between 5 and 16 MBs of available RAM). Some reports say that Sony Ericsson did not give enough memory to the browser and so Netfront runs out of memory a bit too easily (memory is pre-allocated to web browsers on most non-smartphones because they don’t run advanced operating systems to handle the issue better). Netfront –like Opera Mobile– is recommended to be used mostly with smartphones or PDAs. The browser shines on these platforms. Netfront has about 3% of the mobile phone market (this number is for handsets that come pre-installed with it).

Sample user agent: Mozilla/4.0 (MobilePhone MM-8300/US/1.0) NetFront/3.1 MMP/2.0 (Sanyo MM-8300 phone)

Nokia’s S60 Browser

Dubbed as the next-big-thing in mobile web browsing, Nokia’s Safari mobile port doesn’t have an official name. This browser uses Apple’s and KDE’s javascript and HTML engines and it’s indeed a very capable browser. Its main innovation is the “minimap” which allows to see the whole page as a small thumbnail and then easily navigate through it very fast on a large page. History is also based on minimaps. Additionally, the browser supports RSS out of the box (just like Safari does) and ‘Search as you Type’ like on Firefox. The browser is not out yet, but the first Series60-3rdEdition handsets are supposed to come out in March or April and will include it. There is some talk to also port it to the UIQ platform (which is a different UI on top of Symbian) and Series 80/90. One problem I have with this browser is the current lack of WAP/WML support (which is a must-have feature for most carriers). KHTML does not support it and so there was talk at Nokia to port a second core inside the same browser (namely, Nokia’s Series 40 older browser, which does support WML). But this decision was not finalized the last time we talked to Nokia.

Sample user agent: Mozilla/5.0 (SymbianOS/9.1; U; en-us) AppleWebKit/109 (KHTML, like Gecko) Safari/109 (this is not final, it’s going to change)

Pocket Internet Explorer

Microsoft’s mobile version of IE is a bit like a “double edged knife”. While it does the basics pretty well and on most pages it manages a very nice rendering with beautiful ClearType fonts, the browser hasn’t seen any major update in years. CSS and Javascript is a hit and miss, and we are sure that most security holes that have been fixed on its desktop counterpart are largely unfixed on the mobile version. Additionally, Pocket IE is a bit too streamlined. There is no ability to download an image off a page, or to autocomplete forms. Additionally, the browser only works with Windows Mobile Smartphone and PDA editions and no other operating system. Overall, it’s a browser that does the basics well, but there is always the feeling that something’s missing from it. It smells like a dead project, or a project that sees little “love” from Microsoft. A pitty.

Sample user agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 4.01; Windows CE; PPC; 240×320) (any Pocket PC phone)

Openwave’s UP.Browser

Disclaimer: My husband works for Openwave Systems Inc, whose browser is reviewed below.

UP.Browser is the king of low-end handsets. You probably never heard of it, but chances are, if you are running a Samsung, Siemens, Sharp, LG or Sprint phone, that you run it. Openwave’s browser has about 51% of the overall phone market and the reason it does, is because of its ability to run on handsets with as low as 512 KBs of allocated memory (this is just for startup). Currently, there are two versions that are actively being deployed by phone makers, v6.2.x and v7.1.x. Javascript and CSS are mostly supported on the latest version, but many manufacturers still ship with 6.2.x for some (odd) reason. UP.Browser is the beloved child of most carriers because it supports technologies that most other mobile browsers don’t: provisioning, download, MIDP, DRM, livecast, custom KDDI and J-Phone tags etc. Openwave is providing the full solution to phones, including the UI and networking stack in some cases, and so it’s not possible to download it and install it on any given phone. There are two main problems with Openwave’s browser: it’s in a constant flux, so creating sites for it doesn’t mean that it will work with all its versions, and that is frustrating for web developers. Secondly, while UP.Browser needs very little RAM to start up, some phone manufacturers take extra advantage of it and doesn’t give it enough RAM to work with complex sites (e.g. some give it only 700 KBs of RAM and requires 4 MBs to actually render).

Sample user agent: SIE-M65/50 UP.Browser/ MMP/2.0 Profile/MIDP-2.0 Configuration/CLDC-1.1 (Siemens M65 phone)

Teleca’s Obigo

Obigo is Openwave’s real competitor. It is also meant mostly for low-end phones and it can also start up with less than 600 KBs of memory. It also supports HTML 4.01, CSS 2.1, Javascript 1.5, DOM2, SVG Tiny, XHTML, WML and it incorporates a “thumbnail view” (similar to Nokia’s “minimap” trick). It also supports HotSpot navigation, SnapToText, text-only browsing and smart frame handling. Like Openwave, they also offer messaging capabilities and even a Media Player too. In my opinion, Obigo has had the most impressive evolution from all mobile browsers. In just two years it has managed to move from a status where it would only do WML and it would not render tables at all, to a very respectable solution that does much more than just offering web browsing. Obigo can be found on some Samsung and LG phones currently (usually under the browser name “AU”) and currently has a relatively small market share of about 8%, but that’s increasing daily.

Sample user agent: Samsung-SPHA920 AU-MIC-A920/2.0 MMP/2.0 (Samsung SPHa920 phone)

Sony Ericsson’s SEMC-Browser

Sony Ericsson’s native web browser was an interesting experiement. SE tried to make their own instead of licensing one and the result was pretty bad, until recently. The new versions of their browser, 4.03 and 4.2 are not that bad, although the browser seems “stuck” permanently in a badly-implemented Small Screen Rendering mode (the browser would insist on placing text and icons below others, even if there is enough screen space to render them side by side). SSL is now supported, but CSS and Javascript are still absent. This browser is to be found on all low-end to mid-range SE phones. Now all their Walkman and high-end feature phones use Netfront, as we mentioned above.

Sample user agent: SonyEricssonK750i/R1N Browser/SEMC-Browser/4.2 Profile/MIDP-2.0 Configuration/CLDC-1.1 UP.Link/ (Sony Ericsson K750i phone)

Nokia’s Series 40 Browser

This is Nokia’s older browser for their non-smartphone Series 40 line. It was also ported to Series 60 at one point, usually used when Netfront or Opera were not bundled with a given smartphone. In terms of capabilities is similar to the Sony Ericsson’s latest browser. Nothing impressive about it, but it does work well on simple cHTML pages and WML.

Sample user agent:
Nokia6230i/2.0 (03.23) Profile/MIDP-2.0 Configuration/CLDC-1.1 (Nokia 6230i phone)

Opera Mini

Opera Mini has been greeted with lots of enthusiasm. But it’s not suitable for all users. The browser’s strong point is the fact that it’s server side which optimizes the download process of pages, resulting in paying much less in GPRS charges. For example, OSNews’ mobile front page is 30 KBs normally, but Opera Mini’s server can bring it down to 10KBs with special compression. This means that (with Cingular’s GPRS rates) it will cost the user about $0.10 instead of $0.30, and this is a very welcome feature. On the down-side though, Opera Mini can not offer all kinds of interaction between the user and a remote site because of the server used in the middle. So to buy a ticket or have heavy Ajax, JS or CSS support you will also need some luck. The consesus is that if you are using a smartphone or good-enough browser, stick with it, except if you pay lots for GPRS or your native phone browser is really bad, in which case use Opera Mini.

Sample user agent: Opera/8.01 (J2ME/MIDP; Opera Mini/1.2.2958; en; U; ssr) (undisclosed Java-capable phone)

Motorola’s Native Browser

This is the worst browser of all, and unfortunately it’s used a lot because Motorola’s GSM phones sell a lot. It’s not only restrictive and refuses to load most pages, but even its plain WAP support is problematic some times. I don’t know how Motorola is getting away with such a terrible application. Stay away at all costs, or install Opera Mini if you must have one of their GSM feature phones (their Linux phones come with Opera and their NexTel ones come with Openwave, usually).

Sample user agent: MOT-E398/0E.20.59R MIB/2.2.1 Profile/MIDP-2.0 Configuration/CLDC-1.0 (Motorola E398 phone)


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