Browsing the new browsers
Mountain View is fast becoming a source of Web browsers. Skyfire Labs is creating a Web browser for mobile phones, Google has launched its Chrome browser and Mozilla's Firefox is now in Release 3.
I ran into Skyfire at blogger Om Malik's Mobilize conference (www.gigaom.com). Skyfire is located on Castro Street and has received $17.8 million from Lightspeed, Trinity Ventures and Matrix Partners in two venture financing rounds. Nitin Bhandari, CEO and co-founder of Skyfire, is tackling the hard problem of displaying information designed for large TVs and computers on small cell phones. Original attempts at this problem gave users a few lines of text. This changed with Apple's iPhone, which gave users whole-page Web browsing on a phone. Skyfire goes beyond the iPhone to support Adobe's Flash and Microsoft's Silverlight for playing multimedia.
Skyfire, currently released for open beta testing, works in the U.S. on Nokia's E61i, E61, N73, N75, N76, and N95 phones and some Windows Mobile smartphones. Phones with larger VGA screens, like the HTC Touch Diamond, are not yet supported.
Even though Nokia and Microsoft already offer mobile browsers, Skyfire provides a richer browsing experience. With Skyfire's mobile browser you can zoom in on whole Web pages and scroll them around the screen. Download Skyfire from www.skyfire.com to view political debates, monitor finances, follow friends, play music and retrieve information.
Google got its start by simplifying searches. Now 10 years old, it is trying to simplify Web browsing with Chrome. But Chrome is too simple: It won't let me e-mail links to friends, it can't read as many Web pages as Internet Explorer, and it doesn't support useful add-ins like Firefox.
Despite lacking luster, Chrome has four features I really like. First, you can drag page tabs to create separate windows that can be displayed side-by-side. Secondly, you don't need to shut down the whole browser if it locks up, just kill the tab or window that is causing the problem. Thirdly, on opening a new tab, Chrome displays miniature screen pictures of most frequently visited sites. Finally, you type both Web site names and search terms in the same window.
I wish the company would extend this feature to its regular search windows. I agree with Google that Internet Explorer and Firefox are too slow. For fast browsing, even on a PC there is an alternative: Apple's Safari.
Google's wants Chrome to be a platform on which developers can create apps via its Chromium open source project. This makes sense for Google as it will offload server processing for serious Web applications to phones and PCs. Chrome reminds me of the 1990s, when client-server applications each ran their own PC software package. A single browser replaced diverse PC applications. As we've seen with the iPhone — which can't run Flash, and has a separate app for YouTube videos — we are drifting back to an era of multiple browsing platforms on the user's device.
So far, Chrome is no competition for existing browsers. According to Nielsen Online, Chrome attracted 2 million users in its first week of release last month. This compares with 8 million copies downloaded in just one day last June when Firefox 3 launched. And market share numbers don't look promising for Chrome. At the beginning of this week Chrome had 0.69 percent market share, according to Net Applications. Net Applications also shows Microsoft's Internet Explorer leading the pack with 72 percent, and Firefox following with 20 percent share.
My bet is that Skyfire can really shine in the mobile browser market, but Chrome will need much more than a good polish.
Angela Hey's column appears monthly in the InBusiness section of the Voice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.