UPDATE: The Skyfire browser has continued to develop over time, and a more recent preview covering the latest changes has been published: Skyfire Mobile Browser Preview 2
A few weeks ago, I wrote an editorial commenting on how horrible browsing the Web is on most mobile devices. Amazingly, there’s already a solution for this problem, at least for some users. It’s called Skyfire, and it is far and away the best web browser for Windows Mobile I’ve ever seen.
This application offers just about all the features you need to access “Web 2.0” sites, like dynamic Flash, advanced Ajax, and Java. It’s good enough that your main limitation in browsing is going to be the size and resolution of your smartphone’s screen, and Skyfire is even able to compensate for that.
I was able to spend some time with an early beta, and I found I genuinely enjoyed putting this application through its paces.
Pushing the Limits
Internet Explorer Mobile is a decent web browser. Limited, but decent. So if Skyfire is going to be worth our time, it’s going to have to be able to do things the default Windows Mobile browser can’t. That’s why as soon as I loaded it on an AT&T Tilt I went straight to YouTube.
Skyfire acts generally like the iPhone browser. When you open a site, what you see is it shrunk down to fit on your smartphone’s display. You can then tap on the screen to zoom in on sections of the page.
When I went to YouTube, what I saw was the full site, not a stripped down version. I selected a video and the page opened, and the video immediately began to play, with full motion and sound.
And all this happened really, really quickly. I went to New York Times site and the home page loaded in less than 4 seconds.
But I wanted to keep testing Skyfire, so I next went to Google Maps and looked up my house. Again, what I saw was virtually identical to what appears when I look at this site on my desktop computer.
Naturally, I tried out Brighthand too, just as successfully.
As I said earlier, when you open a web page in Skyfire you see it shrunken down to fit on your smartphone’s screen. Because the smartphone I tested this application on has a QVGA screen — as most Windows Mobile devices do — I could read the headlines of articles on news sites, but not the text.
That’s why you need to expand sections of the page to make them readable. When you do this, though, in many cases news articles become wider than what’s being displayed. Fortunately, you aren’t forced to pan-and-scan to be able to read these.
This browser offers a feature called SmartFit, which reformats the text on a page so that it’s as wide as your smartphone’s screen when you’re zoomed in on a section of a page.
The Skyfire people warned me that this is one of the features that still needs considerable effort before it’s fool-proof, but it worked fine when I tested it.
Skyfire offers all kinds of advanced features, but the basic ones haven’t been forgotten. It has a full-screen mode, for example, and you can store cookies and bookmarks. It’s even possible to bookmark a specific location on a web page.
It also works on all the versions of Windows Mobile 5 and 6, which includes devices with a touchscreen and those without. When Skyfire is being used without a stylus, you control an on-screen pointer with the D-pad.
Naturally, it also offers both landscape and portrait modes. But before anyone asks, I haven’t had a chance to test this application on a VGA screen.
An Important Note
One of the reasons this browser is so fast and full-featured is it’s server based. When you’re opening a web page with your smartphone, it’s actually being opened on a Skyfire server, which then sends an image of the page to your device.
The advantages of this are numerous, but there’s a drawback, too: privacy. Because your web browsing will be done through a remote server, it’s possible for Skyfire to keep track of all the sites you visit and all the data you enter, including passwords, credit card numbers, etc.
I spoke with Skyfire CEO Nitin Bhandari about this, and he assured me that his company takes its customer’s privacy seriously. Still, this is something you should keep in mind.
It’s a Beta
As impressed as I am with Skyfire, I’m not blind to its flaws. However, the vast majority of these I chalk up it currently being a beta.
For example, I watched a long clip on YouTube, and after a few minutes the audio and video were slightly out of sync. The application also crashed on me once while I was activating SmartFit. But these are the sort of things I consider “teething pains”, and will likely be cleared up before the full version is available.
There’s also currently an important feature missing, but it’s high on the developer’s To-Do List: multi-line text entry. Currently, you can type in a single line of text, like a few words you want Google to search for. You can’t, however, put a post in the Brighthand forums. You can’t even piece it together line-by-line. Attempting to enter text into a multi-line text field gets you a pop-up windows saying this feature is coming soon.
I’ve put together a short video demonstrating Skyfire in action. You can see it below.
In it, I attempt to show off the high points of this new application, including its speed and the ability to play Flash video.
The demo also includes a bit on the SmartFit feature.
Skyfire has just announced a private beta for Windows Mobile phones in the U.S.
The company promises it will introduce a version for Symbian smartphones in the coming months, and other platforms and countries are on the product roadmap. It’s keeping mum about what these are, though.
You can sign-up for the private beta by visiting skyfire.com. There is no charge.