Preview: Skyfire Browser for Windows Mobile

The capabilities of today's modern smartphones to access information from Internet are indeed impressive, but it would be hard to argue that the Web browsing experience on a smartphone is equivalent to that of a full-size desktop or notebook computer. While there are many sites you can access quite satisfactorily on a small handheld device, there are plenty of others that simply won't work properly - or at all- on a typical mobile browser given the technological limitations of a small handheld device.

The SkyFire browser from SkyFire Labs (which is currently in beta) aims bring mobile browsing up to par via a server-assisted architecture. Rather than accessing sites directly, SkyFire works in conjunction with an intermediary server that pre-processes and renders content before delivering it to the mobile device.

In this way it helps ameliorate the inevitable processing, memory, and bandwidth limitations of even the highest-end smartphones. We tested version 0.6 of SkyFire using a T-Mobile Dash running Windows Mobile 6, which we connected to the Internet over both EDGE and Wi-Fi connections.

SkyFire offers a very simple and well-organized start page, with a tabbed interface that keeps bookmarks and history at easy reach so you don't have to go wading through menus for them. When you do need it SkyFire's menu interface is easy to use, and its search feature returns results from both Google and Yahoo.

When you first access a Web page, SkyFire displays a thumbnail view of the entire page in which most text isn't readable, but provides a resizable navigation window you can use to zoom in on a particular area of the page. After some time spent with SkyFire, two things were clear almost immediately.

The first is that SkyFire displays Web pages that look just like how they would if you were viewing them via a desktop browser. In fact, with SkyFire you get the actual primary versions of sites rather than the "light" mobile versions, since as far as far as the sites know you're not using a mobile connection.

Second, SkyFire loads sites with suprising alacrity, not the ponderous delays more characteristic of mobile browsers. In most cases we were looking at a page within a second or two of arriving at a site, though when scrolling down to look at a long page, there was sometimes a lag of several seconds as SkyFire filled in the contents.

To put SkyFire through its paces, we pointed it to a series of sites that we'd normally never consider accessing from a phone since they're chock full of things like complex formatting, embedded video, Flash components, AJAX, and the like. We started with Remember the Milk, Netflix, and TiVo.

In each case the pages displayed correctly and we were able to successfully log in and use the site features to manage our to-do list, our movie rental queue, and schedule recordings. With Netflix we were even able to watch movie previews, though not entire films via the Watch It Now streaming feature. The preview clips didn't play at their full frame rate, but they were of acceptable quality with no pauses or audio dropouts.

Video is one of the more challenging forms of content for a mobile browser to handle, so to further test SkyFire's abilities we visited a Nerve.com's collection what it calls the 50 Greatest Commercial Parodies of all time. The clips that comprise the collection are culled from all over the Web; mostly YouTube and Hulu, but also a handful of smaller sites.

We didn't play every single one of them, but we did try at least 10, and SkyFire was able to play all of them. As when playing back Netflix previews, the frame rates were somewhat slower than normal, but not so low as to be frustrating. (This was even true over a relatively speedy Wi-Fi link, so presumably raw bandwidth limitations weren't the issue.) It was also tricky-and sometimes not possible-to get videos to play full screen.

Click buttons for full-screen mode usually didn't work, and though we could approximate full screen with the Zoom feature, it usually cut off parts of the image on all four sides. SkyFire also sometimes failed to play a video's accompanying audio, a condition we were able to cure by shutting down and relaunching the browser.

As a sanity check we attempted to use all the aforementioned sites using Windows Mobile's native Internet Explorer browser. As expected, we had major problems with all of them, ranging page formatting errors to an inability to log in, use site features, or of course, play most kinds of embedded video.

Indeed, SkyFire's ability to play videos using technologies like QuickTime and Flash 9 that are used by YouTube, Hulu, et al. is unique even compared to a browser like Opera Mini, which uses a similar server-assisted architecture. (That said, Opera Mini has some features SkyFire lacks, such as the ability to switch between portrait and landscape mode and to store downloaded pages for offline viewing.)

SkyFire is currently only available for smartphones running Windows Mobile 5 or 6 (both touch screen and non-touch screen-based devices are supported.) If you want to check it out for yourself, you'll have to wait a little while since SkyFire has temporarily closed their beta program.

As of this writing you can't download SkyFire, but you can sign up in advance for an upcoming new beta round which is planned for sometime the summer. The company expects to launch Skyfire 1.0 before the end of the year and follow up the Windows Mobile version with one for Symbian S60, but users of Blackberry and Palm OS-based devices are out of luck, at least for the time being. (A private beta of the Symbian S60 edition of Skyfire recently became available.)

As for pricing, the company maintains that it intends to keep SkyFire free even after launch, but it's going to have to make money somehow, especially given the need to provide server resources. Also, those with concerns about privacy may have reservations about the potential to collect user activity data inherent in SkyFire's architecture.

Of course, SkyFire can't make your screen bigger or do much to improve your phone's inherent input controls, so a SkyFire-equipped phone may still leave something to be desired when it comes to browsing the Web. Nevertheless, even in its beta form, SkyFire shows much promise towards bringing mobile browsing closer to parity with the full-size browser experience.


browsers, browser, Windows Mobile, Skyfire