Web Development Basics For Mobile Devices (pt2): Mobile Browser Roundup

One of the things I rejoice every now and then with traditional web site development is how well current web browsers support standards. The support is not picture perfect, but at least I don’t need to develop / maintain 3 or 4 different codebases to get cross-browser functionality (not to mention crashing pc’s; a notorious side effect of CSS in Netscape Navigator 4.x series). Sadly, the mobile browser situation is a blast from the past.

Each mobile browser has its own quirks and display habits that make sure designers spend a lot of time tweaking code and testing on various emulators and devices. Usually, the simplest and most efficient way is to target for one or more specific browser or device type with similar feature sets, and port results to other devices (more or less successfully).

Below is a list of few most essential mobile browsers; I know I most likely forgot some big names, but it happens. Note: most of these browsers provide simulators, picture below is a sample of Opera Mini simulator running this website);

Opera Mini Simulator running Ringtone-search.net

  • Nokia Mobile Browser 4.0
    NMB is the browser found on most Internet enabled Nokia phones. It contains support for WAP, XHTML-MP, CSS and MMS.
  • Nokia S60 OSS Browser
    Nokia S60 Browser is the mean and lean option to default Nokia Browser. It’s open source, based on products like Apple’s Safari, KHTML Konqueror and capable of running pretty much everything you might try. This means even framesets, AJAX and Web 2.0 - things normal mobile browsers choke with.
  • Opera Mini 2.0
    Opera Mini is the Opera’s attempt to please the mobile users. And they do it with style. The browser is way better than Nokia Mobile Browser, but lacks many of the features in S60 browser. However, this browser can run basically on any browser.

  • Internet Explorer Mobile
    IEMobile, previously known as Pocket IE, is part of the Windows Mobile 5.0 experience aimed for smartphones running on Microsoft platform.
  • WinWap
    WinWAP is a name that brings me back memories from late 90’s. It was a good basic simulator / mobile device browser back then, and same applies currently. The Wap-part may sound a thing of the past, but why change a product name if it’s good?
  • BitStream Thunderhawk
    Thunderhaw is a relatively little known browser in mobiles, but it has a good background on PDA gadgets. And yes, BitStream is the famous fontmaker…
  • Openwave
    Openwave is an old, but relatively little known brand in mobile browsing. The current version is already in it’s 7th incarnation, providing a wide selection of tools mobile browsing.

  • Blazer
    Blazer is one of the fastest and best-known browsers for Palm Powered handhelds today. It’s famous for rendering pages lightning fast, while only showing the content you need to see and trimming the rest. See Palm Treo 650 review for more details.

And that is just few big names… In reality, there are tens and tens of additional smaller browsers for various devices; each with varying support for techniques.

And to make things even more difficult for developer, all the browsers have somewhat varying means of providing the user experience. Currently most XHTML+CSS capable mobile / device browsers dynamically shrink / scale down the site content to fit display resolution and size, but there are differences how this is done. For example some devices can adjust to screen orientation, others not.

Nokia S60 browser uses a technique called mini map where the entire web page is shrunken to fit the display without altering the original layout. Then user can designate, which area to view in larger size. A very good solution, and very developer friendly.

Opera and several others use an alternative approach. Page is fitted to screen size, but during this process page layout may be altered and only the essential page content is shown (large images etc. may be removed completely). A very good solution, but this can cause some grey hair for website developers who are worried about site appearance.

However, display problems and limited features are just a temporary glitch in evolution of mobile browsers. Like with PC’s, the technology just gets better and better each month. Nokia N80 has a resolution of 352 x 416 pixels screen, which is four times sharper than what most series 60 handsets have had to offer, and even better is just around the corner…