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But its not just the browser that affects how quickly and efficiently the mobile web is delivered. Mobile browsing is also affected by the client hardware, ranging from the processor to the kind of wireless network being used, all of which have improved markedly. It's also affected by the design of websites being targeted, and there's new attention being focused on optimising these sites for mobile users.
When everything comes together, the results can be impressive. In the US, the combination of the iPhone's large screen, touch interface and Safari has given mobile users a new way of viewing the web: the way they're used to seeing it with their PC-based web browsers. Until now, most users struggled with so-called microbrowsers, which typically access separately created and maintained web content.
StatCounter reported in March that Safari/iPhone was the number one mobile browser in the US, and number two globally, trailing the Nokia web browser. Google released data in January showing that Christmas traffic to its site from iPhone users outstripped all other mobile devices, at a point when the iPhone had just 2 percent of the smartphone market. The lesson was clear: Give mobile users a browser they could actually use . . . and they'd use it.
No more second-class browsing
"Mobile browsing was considered a second-class citizen on the web," says Matt Womer of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C).
"You had to serve completely different content, with a different markup [language] and different protocols. Those were the days of such early browsers as Phone.com/OpenWave, and the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP), a markup for creating mobile-friendly web content."
The iPhone Safari browser, though not the first full web browser for handhelds, crystallised a huge change in thinking. "There's [now] a convergence of the desktop web and the mobile device web," says Mike Rowehl, scalability architect for start-up Skyfire Labs, which is creating a thin-client mobile browser, with most of the heavy-lifting work being done by the core Firefox desktop browser running on servers.
"The iPhone really cracked that open, and people are starting to think differently about the services on their device."
"People browsing the web from a mobile device don't expect an 'alternative universe' which lacks features they're used to," says Jay Sullivan, vice president of mobile for Mozilla, overseeing the Mobile Firefox project, which will shortly release its alpha test version.
NEXT PAGE: Next generation of mobile browsers