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Is Apple opening iPhone to new browsers?

Newly approved browser apps expand options, may show change in policy
  • John Cox (Network World)
  • 20 January, 2009 08:12

Apple may be loosening restrictions that have so far blocked Web browsers save its own Safari from the iPhone, according to a number of Web news sites. But at least some of the newly approved applications appear to be Safari plug-ins, rather than true alternative browsers.

This week Apple has given a green light to some new third-party Web browsing applications for the iPhone, as a number of Apple-focused Web sites quickly noticed. The applications appeared on sites like AppShopper, a Website for iPhone and iPod Touch software, as well as Apple's App Store. Some of them are free, others range in price from US$1 to $2.

But a closer look at the sometimes-sketchy information about these new applications reveals they may be plug-ins or skins to enhance the default Web Safari browser. One example of such a plug-in is Cooliris, which is clearly identified as such.

There's been no formal announcement by Apple, and the Apple PR staff has not responded to our request for comment.

Apple's apparent change, if in fact it proves to be so, comes at a time of growing innovation in mobile Web browsers. Safari, a full HTML Web browser, has been one of the key reasons for the iPhone's popularity. The phone's big screen, and clever multitouch display, has been a highly effective hardware platform for Safari's Web browsing and rendering features, though it still lacks support for Adobe Flash, a widely used program for adding video, animation and interaction to Web pages.

(Last year, a Texas company filed a patent infringement suit against Apple, claiming Safari on the iPhone violated the company's recently issued Web navigation patent.)

But Safari is far from being the first, or only, full Web browser for mobile devices. Opera Software offers both Opera Mobile and a server-based version, Opera Mini, which can run on even low-end cell phones. Others include Bitstream's ThunderHawk, Nokia's Symbian-based mobile browser and Skyfire.

Microsoft plans a new browser, called Internet Explorer Mobile 6, due in mid-2009, for Windows Mobile smartphones, based on parts taken from desktop IE 6 and 7, and some code from the beta release of IE 6.

Until now, some observers have believed Apple has ruled out rival browsers or even optional features on the grounds that they duplicate functionality of an existing iPhone application, in this case Safari. That somewhat vague criteria has been used to disqualify other App Store applications, and has been roundly criticized by developers.

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Engadget is reporting as an update, as is Macworld, but without attribution, that only Web browsers based on the WebKit application framework will be approved by Apple. WebKit originally was developed by Apple, and now is open source code used as the foundation for an array of browsers besides Safari: Google Chrome, the browser with the Android operating system, and the highly regarded Nokia browser on Symbian-based smartphones.

If full browsers are being permitted, but limited to those based on WebKit, then it would close the door to Mozilla's Firefox for Mobile, now in alpha release, which is based on desktop Firefox's Gecko rendering engine, and possibly both the Opera Mobile and Opera Mini browsers, based on Opera Software's own code.

MacRumors.com identified four new applications in the browsing category. Arron Hirst, editor-in-chief of Razorianfly.com, a Website focused on Apple's App Store and its software offerings, also has posted a quick hands-on assessment of all four.

Edge Browser, which frees up screen space apparently by eliminating or hiding the address and navigation bars. The statement "See your Web page or web app in a full screen Safari Browser" suggests this is a plug-in to Safari. The developer is listed as Mobile Productivity, whose main product appears to be suite of applications for auto dealerships.

Razorianfly: "Great, it's fullscreen!! ..However, it's pointless without tabs."

Incognito, a browser that automatically erases your entire Web session when you close it; (US$1.99).

Razorianfly: "If you want to keep your pages a secret, then this is for you. Otherwise you don't really need it. Having said that, Incognito does seem to have speed on its side..."

WebMate, which mimics tabbed browsing by queuing up the links you click on, so you can view them one by one, by hitting an arrow, instead of hitting your "back" button and waiting for screens to reload; US99 cents.

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Razorianfly: "Slick looking, but slow."

ShakingWeb, which also seems to be more like a Safari utility than a standalone Web browser: it uses an algorithm to maintain a steady screen image, by compensating for any shaking of your hand if you're walking, or riding a bus, for example; US$1.99.

Razorianfly: "Shaking is pretty innovative, but the innovation stops there. Shaking Web only supports one window being open at any one time. So you can forget about sites that require pop-ups to initiate, or you simply just want to look at something else while browsing."

"Shaking Web and the Edge browser do seem like they could be Safari plug-ins," Hirst writes, in response to a Network World e-mail query. "If Apple would actually accept plug-ins for mobile Safari, then browsing on the phone could get a little more interesting. As it is now, and as I understand it, these are not full-on browsers. For one they lack [features such as] bookmarking, [and] history...."

Hirst won't be dumping mobile Safari. But he says he expects to use one of the new applications, WebMate, far more often than Safari from now on. "The thing I like about WebMate is link queuing," he says. "Although it's another form of 'tabs,' it's different in the sense that you can choose if a link should be queued, whenever. Whereas in Safari, a new tab will open only if the page being viewed requires one to [open]. Not to mention, being the designer that I am, I like the [WebMate] UI layout. It's crisp -- like Safari." You can see a video of WebMate in action online.