Looking at the World Through a Paper-Towel Tube: the Future of the Mobile Web Browser

7/2/08

If you want to search the Internet, you’ll probably use your PC rather than your cell phone. But that’s likely to change in the future, I was told the other night at this month’s Mobile Monday Boston event, which focused on how to make better Web browsers for mobile devices.

This month’s venue was Orange Labs’ fanatically style-conscious (blond plywood paneling, giant screens projecting changing pictures of clouds, long-legged aluminum Emeco chairs) office space in Cambridge. Mobile Monday originated in Finland eight years ago; today events are organized more or less all over the world, for people working in the mobile industry or interested in mobile communications.

According to the organizers, shipments of devices with advanced mobile browsers will grow from 76 million to 700 million per year over the next five years. Already today, most reasonably advanced phones have some kind of Internet browsing capability.

One of the speakers at the event was Franklin Davis from Nokia. He pointed out that with a global population of six billion people, and roughly three billion cell phones in use around the world but only one billion PCs, “the mobile will be the first and dominant way to access the Web in the future.”

In fact, in many places in the developing world, it already dominates. “Nobody has a PC, everybody has a mobile,” as Davis put it.

Getting a decent Web browser on these phones would not only help consumers—it would also make life a little easier for people who are developing screensavers, wallpapers, animations and similar content for mobile phones. Instead of making developers tweak the content to work on different handset models, with different screen sizes, different amounts of memory, et cetera, it should be possible to let the browser do the work. That might mean developers could build new applications faster.

Still, the majority of cell phone owners never bother to use their browsers at all. Part of the problem is that downloading big files takes a while over most mobile networks, and looking at an ordinary Web page filled with flashy graphics on a mobile phone’s tiny screen can be less than rewarding.

“It is like looking at your PC through a paper towel tube. You’ll never want a giant screen in your pocket,” said Davis.

Developers have tried different solutions for this problem. One is to build browsers that automatically discard the less essential parts of a Web page and trim it down to a leaner version. But users and their browsers might not always agree on what parts of a page aren’t essential.

A better solution might be to make sure that the user gets the right content with the minimum amount of fuzz. That could mean, for example, making the browser location-aware, according to David Carson, technical lead for the Android browser at Google. You shouldn’t have to enter a street address to search for the closest pizzerias, when the cellular network already tracks where you are.

This might also mean adding a voice user interface to the browser, said Mike Phillips, cofounder of speech technology developer Vlingo. In other words, just say “pizza”, and your phone will show you the way. Vlingo already makes this possible—or something close to it—with the voice-search application it has developed for Blackberry devices.

Who knows? Eventually you might be able to simply say “hungry” to your location-, time-, and context-conscious browser and have it lead you to a lobster shack if you’re driving on the Maine coast or to a bistro if you’re walking the streets of Paris.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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  • John Blackwood

    This info is promising. I use the browser on my Blackberry a lot and, as a result, I have a lot of frustrations. Having new browsers that are smartphone-aware would help – I hope the technology of smart phone browsing continues to improve

  • http://blogs.s60.com/browser/ Franklin Davis

    @John: (shameless plug :) Get a Nokia S60 device — the first to market with a full Web browser! As a Blackberry user, I bet you’ll love the E71, available soon…

    Seriously — there are now more and more great mobile browsers out there. Even for your Blackberry you may be able to use Opera Mini.

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  • http://jeffd.vox.com/ Jeff D

    Not to mention that if you download a big file to your phone, where are you going to put it and for how long?