Can Microsoft's mobile browser take on the competition?

With the pending 2009 release of Internet Explorer Mobile 6, Microsoft is making a major change in its approach to the mobile Web.

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:

  • A full HTML rendering engine, based on the code from the older version of the desktop browser, IE 6.
  • Support for Adobe Flash Lite 3.1,to improve multimedia experience (by contrast the Safari browser in Apple's iPhone currently lacks Flash support,but supports Scripting and CSS).
  • Enhanced Script and AJAX support (Jscript v5.7 from IE8)
  • The ability to quickly shift from a site's mobile page to its standard desktop version.
  • Layout fixes to accommodate a mobile screen (text wrap)
  • Deeper integration with search
  • User interface improvements,Web search integrated with the browser's address bar, multiple levels of zooming and touch (but not multi-touch as with the iPhone) with support for panning.
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.

Underneath the current IE Mobile browser is the old IE4 code, with its own unique set of bugs making web browsing in IE Mobile a miserable experience.It supports a fewer Web standards than the latest desktop browser, Internet Explorer 7 and 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.

But even with the improvements and the benefits cited by Microsoft in its forthcoming major release,end users have a growing number of alternatives, from vendors who are pushing mobile innovation far ahead. These include two different mobile browsers from Opera Software with touch friendly PAN/Zoom Interface, 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.

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