Browser Wars II
By C.J. Kennedy, Mon Jun 18 00:00:00 GMT 2001

A mobile phone's utility is measured by battery life, ease of use and style, right? Not anymore...


Ed Suwanjindar, product manager of Microsoft's Mobile Device Group, thinks that the future is wireless software. "As we bring this new generation of software to the mobile market, the relevance of software will be a lot more obvious to people, and software will help to determine what device will be purchased."

Companies like Microsoft are rolling out sophisticated software for handhelds, smartphones, and PDAs - all in a bid to drastically change the way people look at (and buy) phones.

The mobile browser will be the gateway to these changes, offering the entire shrunken Internet instead of today's plain-gray stock reports. Wireless is at a stage similar to what the PC market was in the mid-eighties - when the technology finally became sophisticated enough that consumers could make choices based on functionality.

For the mobile market, the battle lines are drawn across microbrowser territory.

Browser Wars 2000


A little over a year ago, the first Internet-ready mobile devices hit the market. The initial battle of the microbrowser was touted like the second round of a double-bill boxing match, right after the main event, after the Internet browsers had been carted out and the blood washed off the mat. Nokia, Ericsson, Microsoft, Motorola, Symbian, and Openwave (Phone.com at the time) all charged into the ring. But this first round was a dud.

There were two reasons for the fizzle. One was the limited number of phones that actually had browsers built-in. In September of last year, Deutsche Telekom T-mobile revealed that 250,000 of its 13 million users had purchased WAP phones. In that same month, Norway's Telenor reported that only 5% of its customers were using a WAP phone.

The second reason for the slow start was that the wireless browser technology was itself slow, frustrating, and full of glitches.

Forrester Research reported that last year, many dealers were actually advising customers to put off the purchase of WAP phones like the Nokia 7110 and the Ericsson R380 because of the new technology's problems. At its best, the first WAP browsers used block black letters on a gray screen to show weather reports and emails. During WAP's inauguration there wasn't much enabled by the technology to write home about: few users, poor technology, and similar looking browsers.

Robin Hearn, analyst for OVUM, explains, "WAP was always a starting point. A catalyst point, not an end in itself. We are headed towards a melting pot of protocols and languages."

Browser Wars 2001


The landscape has changed a bit in the past year, of course. Driving the technology forward is the promise of quicker adoption rates. As of 1 Jan 2001, OVUM reported that only 7.5% of mobile terminals in the market were Internet-enabled, but they predict that by 1 Jan 2006, 78% of handsets in use will contain microbrowsers.

Approximately 95% of shipped handsets will contain microbrowsers by that date. In terms of pure numbers, IDC predicts that the PDA market will grow from 5.9 million today to 14.8 million by 2002. The current mobile phone market has 700 million users, selling 450 million more devices each year. The smartphone market is expected to grow to 1.3 million devices by 2002, says IDC. The majority of these devices will need microbrowsers.

In an effort to harness this potential, the major players have been developing next-generation browsers. Notably, on February 20th at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, Openwave unveiled their next generation WAP browser which offers graphic-display capabilities and a color screen - a clear move away from the simple past - and accomodates multiple markup languages including xHTML, WML, and cHTML (used by NTT DoCoMo's i-mode).

"Openwave's new user interface promotes ease-of-use and effortless navigation with a look and feel that will be very familiar to existing Web users. Hence, when the handsets with the new user interface ship, we expect the improvement in usability to significantly accelerate WAP usage," says Jeff Damir, vice president of Device Products at Openwave.

Openwave's microbrowsers have been integrated in more than 160 different handset models with more than 70 million units shipped at the end of 2000.

The Giga Information Group states that Openwave's UP browser controls 75% of the browser market, and on May 8th, 2001, Openwave Systems added Eastern Communications, China's largest and only state-run supplier of cellular phones to their list of clients. With their new interface that is clearer and more colorful than its predecessor, Openwave stands a good chance at retaining this market share.

The other major player is Nokia. In 2000 Nokia sold 128.4 Million phones - 44.6 % of the U.S. market and close to 40% of the world market. Nokia produces its own browser, which should give them a large advantage.

The company, like Openwave, is looking to expand from their simple WAP-only offering. Keith Nowak, spokesperson for Nokia, sees the future as xHTML. "In the future most of these browsers will be xHTML, a merger of HTML and WAP, which bridges the two. We will be able to keep the HTML internet content the same, with cascading style sheets, with the documents formatted differently." Mr. Nowak adds, "Nokia will be the first to market with the xHTML browser."

Another company that is making moves into this space is Microsoft.

Currently, Microsoft is offering its new MME (Microsoft Mobile Explorer) browser on Sony's J5 and Z5 phones as well as Samsung phones, for more than 6 million phones to date. During the past two years Microsoft has made it clear that they are not supporting WAP, and that they believe eventually all mobile content will be HTML Internet-based.

Microsoft's Ed Suwanjindar says, "We're not asking people to learn a whole new way to surf the web. We believe that ultimately there will be one internet." However, Microsoft's latest microbrowser, the MME, takes a step back from that hard line by offering WAP support too.

Of the smaller companies like ICE, Spyglass, and Opera, who were producing independent wireless browsers, Opera is the only company still making noise, finding modest success in producing browsers for Internet tablets - those developed by IBM and Ericsson for example.

The company was given another boost when Symbian, makers of the next-generation OS that will power most 3G handsets, recently made it the default browser for their reference designs.

Where to place your bets


The outcome of the browser battle remains a tough call. Complicating matters are devices which can add or remove applications (like browsers) at the user's will.

Like the Nokia 9210 Communicator, these phones often posses enough memory to download another browser if Nokia's browser is not to your liking. This, for the first time, separates browsers from phones and makes them a marketable application in their own right.

Small technical differences between the different browsers will shrink. Carsten Schmidt, associate analyst for Forrester Research says, "There are differences between HTML browsers like the MS Explorer or the Netscape Communicators, or the Opera browser, a smaller mobilebrowser designer. There are different tags that some browsers can accept and others can not."

Schmidt added, "In the early days of the Web this was a problem for site designers since some browsers or also older browsers couldn't accept style sheets or frames. On the mobile side this is the same - the phone.com browser is much more advanced and can display content and tags that others like the Ericsson browser can't. This is mostly important for developers that create a service, though. In a short time this gap will be covered - same as it happened in the PC world."

Already, the WAP Forum is working on the new WAP specs which will make sure that the next version of WAP will make it compatible with HTML and XML. Microsoft has added WAP capabilities to its browsers and Openwave is adding HTML compatibility. xHTML melds all protocols. The main question in the browser war will then rest on the form or function debate: What is more important to someone buying a phone?

The answer depends on who you talk to. Robin Hearn of OVUM researches the device side of the wireless Internet. He says, "Aesthetics will always be one of the key characteristics of a phone. And it will remain that way even when phones have the ability to do more complex tasks. People will not want to pick up a brick to tap into the internet. Software will not be the most significant determining factor in the market."

Jeremiah Zinn, head of collaboration at Ericsson's Cyberlab in New York, focuses on software options and applications for mobile devices. He disagrees. "As the wireless web develops, services will become increasingly important to the user," he says. "People are going to buy phones depending on what software options have been bundled together."

If we look to PCs for some insight into the debate of form over function, then surely function wins. Apple, known for creating more chic computers than the traditional beige PC, hit bottom in 1996 when its devices only held 6% of the overall PC market. PCs have run the show because of their business application support and their ability to exchange information more easily (a point largely made moot with the advent of the Internet).

If that's any indicator of what might happen in the mobile market, then Microsoft's MME browser can be expected to add customer interest and growth to their already 6 million phones.

"Microsoft has made some wise partners with Sony and Samsung," says Robin Hearn of OVUM. "There will be a significant change in screen technology as well as software and these new players are very good at consumer technology with better customer interfaces." The Samsung deal also involves Voicestream, Microsoft's first carrier partner to use MME.

Of course 6 million MME browsers is tiny in comparison to Openwave or Nokia's installed base. Even with Microsoft's desktop advantage (and the interoperability it brings), look to Openwave and Nokia to continue their strength.

Openwave needs to nurture its carrier partnerships with companies like AT&T and Hutchinson, as those carriers also have partnerships with NTT DoCoMo, and they may switch to i-mode's cHTML microbrowser as DoCoMo tries to duplicate its success globally.

Openwave's browser is itself similar to Nokia's 9210 browser in its beauty. Both of these are ready for the jump to 3G networks.

And 3G networks will change the landscape yet again, finally giving browsers the potential to deliver the true mobile Internet to the palm of your hand.

It's going to be an interesting ride on the way.

C.J. Kennedy is currently the senior staff writer for Unstrung.com, and has covered the mobile industry for M-Business Magazine, The Wireless Developer Network, Wireless Business & Technology, Wireless Related, and The Industry Standard.