With the pending 2009 release of Internet Explorer Mobile 6, Microsoft is making a major change in its approach to the mobile Web. And it's about time, according to some.
The new browser isn't a secret but it's only recently has Microsoft begun releasing details, as well as an application emulator, to give a clearer picture of what users can expect. The company hasn't even released any public videos of the browser: only OEM partners willing to sign non-disclosure agreements can get them.
IE Mobile 6 will be a major improvement over the limited browser currently available on devices powered by the Windows Mobile operating system, including the most recent version, 6.1. For the first time, as part of a future upgrade to the operating system, users will be able to display standard Web pages, including Adobe Flash content.
There's a lot riding on this, in light of Apple's success with the iPhone and its Safari Web browser in showing many U.S. users that mobile access to the Web can match desktop browser access. And there are plenty of mobile browser rivals.
"Microsoft is woefully behind in the mobile space," says Carl Howe, director of Anywhere Consumer Research at Yankee Group, a technology research firm. "They don't have a full-featured, standards-compliant browser currently on their Windows Mobile products, nor will they have one for another six months or so. Further, they don't have anything approaching a dominant market share in mobile, meaning that they don't have the marketplace control necessary to force the industry to adopt a non-standard [mobile] Internet Explorer."
But IE Mobile 6, not even in beta release, is already being criticized by some as supporting fewer Web standards than the latest desktop browser, Internet Explorer 7. And it requires some muscular hardware resources: 128MB of RAM, and a 400MHz processor, according to Microsoft. Nor will it be available as a separate product: the operating system on the handheld has to be reflashed to support the new browser, so Microsoft will partner with device makers and mobile operators to supply it.
The first release will be on phones with mobile operator China Mobile, in the People's Republic of China, sometime in 2009.
Technically, IE Mobile 6 combines elements of IE 6 and 7, and of IE 8 which is now in beta test. Microsoft product managers stress the new mobile browser puts a premium on making it easy for users to transact on the Web, not just view it: to successfully complete a range of tasks such as filling in a form, securely logging into a site, and transferring funds between bank accounts.
No code has been released publicly but in November Microsoft announced a package of emulator images, which developers can add to Visual Studio 2005 or 2008 to test applications, including IE Mobile 6, for Windows Mobile 6.1.4.
Here's what you can expect in the new mobile browser:
o For the first time, a full HTML rendering engine, but it's based on the code from the older version of the desktop browser, IE 6, released in 2001.
o Support for Adobe Flash Lite 3.1, a mobile version of the Flash runtime engine that's widely used in Web sites and desktop browsers to show interactive content and video (by contrast the Safari browser in Apple's iPhone currently lacks Flash support).
o AJAX support and Jscript 5.7, from the forthcoming IE 8, which will support a "very high degree of interactivity," says Karen Wong-Duncan, product manager with Microsoft's Windows Mobile group (Jscript is Microsoft's implementation of the ECMAScript Edition 3 specification).
o The ability to switch between full HTML browsing, and browsing of Web site content specifically designed for mobile devices.
o An array of user interface improvements, including touch (but not multi-touch as with the iPhone) with support for panning, Web search integrated with the browser's address bar, and multiple levels of zooming.
For some observers, this is not the cutting edge of the mobile Web. In part, that's because Microsoft remains focused not on the new browser war but on the mobile operating system war, according to Frank Dickson, co-founder and chief research officer for MultiMedia Intelligence, a market research consultancy.
"I would call Microsoft's current [mobile] position 'developing,'" he says. "In this new world, the classic browser and the OS seem to be tightly coupled. The big giants like Nokia, Google and Microsoft have awakened and are moving fast. The insurgents like RIM and Apple are stealing market share. 2009 will see a flurry of new offerings...2010 will be the year we start seeing some shake-out."
Web developer Bruce Lawson, with the non-profit Web Standards Project, which promotes Web standards to reduce the cost and complications of development, downloaded the Microsoft emulator, ran some compliance tests and posted the results on his blog. He was not impressed.
For example, testing the Cascading Style Sheets selectors, the results were "from the 43 selectors, 10 have passed. 1 [is] buggy and 3 are unsupported." Lawson noted that desktop IE 7 passed 13 of the selectors. Applying WSP's Acid2 and Acid3 tests (sample Web pages that test a browser's ability to use specific Web standards) resulted in screen images that were largely non-functional.
"...This is a terrible situation," he wrote. "Twenty percent of the world's population [China] are being offered an ancient, discredited browser."
Lawson, on vacation, did not respond to an e-mail inquiry by our deadline.
"Microsoft looks to support standards whenever possible," responds Microsoft's Karen Wong-Duncan. "As you may know, we have been increasing our Web standards compliance with every new desktop version, and that's an ongoing commitment for mobile as well."
The present level of compliance, far from being an obstacle, is a benefit to Web developers who "do not have to do anything to extend their existing assets to mobile."
"Additionally, we know that standards compliance by itself is insufficient," she says. Sufficiency entails the ability to perform tasks and transactions, not just view standard Web pages. Wong-Duncan cites Microsoft's own tests, working with an unnamed third-party consulting company, that showed IE Mobile 6 had the highest number of completions for a range of Web transactions compared with several rival browsers. She didn't name the other browsers tested and Microsoft is not yet releasing the test data.
But even with the improvements and the benefits cited by Wong-Duncan, end users have a growing number of alternatives, from vendors who are pushing mobile innovation. These include two different mobile browsers from Opera Software, Firefox for Mobile ("Fennec") from Mozilla, the browser with the Open Handset Alliance's Android mobile OS (separate from Google's Chrome desktop browser), the Nokia browser for Symbian-based phones, and server-based browser introductions from Skyfire and Bitstream.
If it's happening faster than Microsoft anticipated, IE Mobile 6 will be perpetually catching up.