Startup sets full mobile browser free

Skyfire unveiled a free mobile browser that it says will support all features of standard PC browsing.

A growing set of developers is setting to work making Web browsing on a phone match the experience on a PC.

Skyfire, a startup in Mountain View, California, joined the fray on Monday when it unveiled a free browser intended to support everything a PC browser can. That includes Flash video, Quicktime, Javascript, Ajax and more, though not everything may be there right now, according to Nitin Bhandari, Skyfire's CEO. The browser is now in a private beta test for U.S. users only. The software was demonstrated at the Demo conference in Palm Desert, California.

Apple's iPhone changed the mobile browsing world last year when it drew a huge following with its Safari browser. Unlike most browsers for phones, it lets users view a full, standard Web page all at once and zoom in to make up for the small size of the screen, though it doesn't support Flash video and some other standard Web features.

Meanwhile, more opportunities have opened up for third parties to get any sort of application onto a consumer's mobile phone. Parts of Google's Android development environment are already available to developers, and Apple is preparing a software development kit for the iPhone. Both Verizon and Sprint Nextel, two of the biggest U.S. operators, have outlined plans to allow any device and any application on mobile networks.

"The iPhone has pretty much settled the debate. People want a rich, full Web experience," Skyfire's Bhandari said. "There's a lot of consciousness that that's the bottom now, and everything now has to be there or above it."

Since the phone's June debut, Mozilla has started developing a mobile version of Firefox, which looks somewhat like mobile Safari in screenshots on Mozilla's wiki. However, Mozilla has been vague about when that software will come out. Norwegian browser vendor Opera has its own mobile browser, Opera Mini.

Skyfire's product will be set apart from Opera Mini and others by supporting the full browsing experience, Bhandari said. It does so by relieving the phone from some of the heavy lifting of presenting a Web page. In fact, a server transcodes every page into an efficient protocol that Skyfire has developed over the past 18 months, he said. The additional exchange of packets between phone and server to make that possible isn't a problem, because the server can carry out tasks much faster than a phone, according to Bhandari.

"The delay added by the server is actually such a small percentage of the time we're actually saving ... that it's actually a huge benefit in the end-user experience," Bhandari said. Skyfire operates the servers in its own data center.

Skyfire can deliver full versions of popular Web sites such as YouTube and ESPN, as demonstrated in a YouTube video. The zooming function, the critical tool for viewing full-size Web pages on a small screen, is different from the iPhone's "pinch" and "unpinch" gestures. A gray box appears over part of the Web page, and users can size that box to cover the area of the page they want to see full-screen, then tap on it to zoom in, Bhandari said. The browser also features a search bar and a tab with featured links in categories including news, sports and video.

The browser is available only for Windows Mobile 5 and 6 today, but a version for Symbian, as well as an international beta test, are coming later, Bhandari said. Skyfire might also develop versions for Android and for the iPhone once Apple's SDK becomes available, he said. It is talking with handset makers and mobile operators about having the browser built into phones, but also sees search and advertising as possible revenue sources.

In addition to invited testers, a limited number of public users will be allowed to participate in the beta. They can sign up at Skyfire's Web site.

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