SkyFire browser generates heat with mobile ISVs

A free browser for mobiles aims to do everything a PC browser can by relieving handheld devices of the required heavy lifting.

Currently in private beta in the U.S., the tool from Mountain View, Calif.-based Skyfire Labs Inc. includes support for Flash video, Quicktime, Javascript, Ajax and others, although not everything will be available right now, the company said.

Skyfire has a zoom in and out feature for viewing full-sized Web pages on small screens, and includes a search bar and tab with featured links for categories like news, sports and video.

The browsing experience is designed to be faster, courtesy of a Skyfire-operated server that transcodes Web pages into an efficient protocol developed by the company.

A London, Ont.-based mobile application developer thinks Skyfire’s approach is “rather clever” in seeking to overcome the limitations of mobile devices. “Skyfire separated the need from the technology. The need is to have PC-like browser functionality without a PC,” said Jim Freeman, CEO of STEP Networks Inc.

The product essentially is a proxy in that communication from a mobile device will not travel directly to the application server, but be routed through Skyfire’s server, said Freeman.

“If [you] have a Flash application that is rather heavy to download, it doesn’t have to download the whole Flash application to the browser, it just stops right at their servers.”

One Eden Prairie, Minn.-based mobile application developer said that if the browser’s capabilities succeed in bringing more people to the Web via their mobiles, then that can only help to take customers one step closer to buying its mobile software.

“Instead of the customer downloading to their PC, then moving the software over to their mobile device they will now be able to download software directly to their mobile device,” said Keith Pichelman, CEO of Concrete Software Inc.

Pichelman added that the fact that the browser is free will attract users to the Web via their handhelds.

Skyfire’s browser and other such products that render everyday Web pages to the mobile platform will serve to raise user awareness around the capabilities of mobile devices, said Sean Byrnes, chief executive of San Francisco, Calif.-based developer of mobile communications software Flurry Inc.

“There aren’t enough mobile sites out there for people to really be compelled, and the ones that are out there are pretty light on what they afford,” said Byrnes.

The solutions to this problem are to either build better browsers that deliver full Web content, or find a better way to bring that full Web content to the phone, he said – the net result either way is the exponential growth of mobile Web capabilities.

Skyfire’s technology will definitely facilitate building mobile support into applications, said Freeman. “It might be just for a subsection of the overall application but [building that mobile support] actually requires more development, more quality assurance and therefore more money to get the work done,” he said.

If Skyfire doesn’t catch on, he added, the mobile developer community will need to continue building mobile technologies in the manner it has up till now.

But Freeman thinks there are security and privacy concerns with Skyfire being a third-party through which data is routed from the mobile user to the Web application – a fact that could, for instance, make online banking tricky. “Now what’s happening, is you’re communicating between you and Skyfire, and Skyfire communicates between their servers and your bank. Potentially they could have your username, your password, your banking information,” he said.

Byrnes acknowledged that although Skyfire servers act as a third party, most mobile applications that are gaining traction have to be proxy-based simply because of the limitations imposed by the hardware. “The reason they are [proxy-based] is because frankly the phones suck in general. They have little memory, they have slow processors, they’re just pieces of junk.”

“If you want to build a compelling mobile service, you have to find a way to basically compensate for the failures of these. And the only way to do it is through a proxy,” said Byrnes.

The browser is currently only available for Windows Mobile 5 and 6, however, a version for Symbian will follow. The company may also build versions for Google’s Android, as well as for the iPhone once the Apple SDK becomes available.

Skyfire could not be reached for comment by press time.

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