Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Web Browsing in mobile devices - the iPhone experience

Recently, some of my friends (me included) had a vigorous debate on how good were the new mobile devices for a REAL web browsing experience, and hence, how useful are the new micro-PCs. For "mobile devices" we meant the most recent HTC models (Kaiser, Touch Diamond) or the brand new 3G iPhone. And for micro-PCs we were referring to Asus EEE et al. And for REAL web brosing experience we meant heavily surfing the net, sending full emails (not SMS like emails, but multi paragraph long useful emails) and instant messaging (chat applications).

I am the happy owner of a 3G iPhone and my opinion was that it is cute and fun for browsing with its multitouch screen and its zoom capabilities, but I had to admit that on the first month of using it I used it more for an ocassional browsing (checking Google Reader or email in the bus queue and that kind of stuff). But, sadly, a couple of days ago I had an accident with my laptop (its cause is not of interest now, let's just say that I'm not the most agile guy in the block) and it is on the Technical Support now for fixing. So for a few days/weeks I am stuck with my iPhone for all my personal web use (when at home, currently I'm writing this blog entry from my office computer ;) ). So I had a chance (and I'll be having it for some time ahead) of really testing the subjects of the debate, and I'd like to share my conclusions.

First things first, a mobile device has permanent data connection. This is inherent to the kind of gadget we are talking about, the iPhone/HTC are based on a telephone and the Asus EEE are... well... computers. But let's put that apart: after all, that's something you already know when you buy either of them.

From the hardware standpoint, the iPhone seems to be enough for me. There are a couple of inconveniences that need to be solved by the manufacturers of these kind of devices: the screen size and the keyboard.

The screen size is clearly short for most modern web pages, and the iPhone fights this with its cool zoom feature. While browsing if you 'double click' (double press) a part of the page, the paragraph is automatically adjusted to the screen size, thus being bigger and more readable. It is not as fun as the two fingers custom zoom, but definitely faster and easier for the user.

The keyboard size impacts in your performance because there is no way you are going to type closely as fast in that keyboard as you do in a laptop keyboard. The easier solution that comes to mind is the "predictor" utilities that try to anticipate what you want to write as you type it, or to correct your typos. Here's my biggest complain about th iPhone: it is too intrusive! The 'predicted' word is taken over whatever you write unless you explicitly discard it! That's annoying when the dictionary doesn't know the word you want, because it keeps changing it (it is said to keep learning from your choices, but so far I am 'at fight' with mine. It specially has problems in accepting one-letter words, and in spanish there are quite a few of them)

Anyway, if you don't hate that feature, in general it is a good keyboard. You can perform well with it, but not great.

Now, let's turn our view on the software side. For my analysis, there are three fundamental fields to explore, as I stated in the beginning: Web-browser, Mail application and Instant Messaging.

The web browser included in the iPhone is the Mac's Safari (obviously adapted for the device). It is simply GREAT for most tastks, I love it. But it has a few limitations. First of all, it's support for flash (which keeps being more and more used in modern webs) is VERY limited: In most sites you'll see a mark indicating you must download a plugin to see the flash parts and it is impossible to see any flash video (except for youtube's, which are opened in the quicktime, and then they look fantastic, I must admit). And the other handicap is that it crashes quite frequently, specially when you try things like zooming or scrolling in a large web page which is not fully loaded. I hope this stuff is solved in future software updates, because the main impression is just great.

The MAIL application is PERFECT. It has preconfigured some services, like GMail, so you don't need any URL for POP3 or that kind of stuff (which not everyone is familiar with) but just yout name and password to add new accounts. Push options can be configured separately for each account and it works smoothly. A great hit here.

And finally, the iPhone does not provide any instant messaging application (Where is my loved iChat? :'( ). It relies on the web interfaces of such services like GTalk, MSN Messenger,.... But that's not a great solution. Fortunately, there's a bunch of free applications for this in the AppStore. I use Parlingo (it let's me open different accounts simultaneously and chat with folks in either of them with a common interface) but there are others, so suit yourself. (Also a great option AOL's AIM application for the iPhone, which in addition let's you send SMS for free).

So, my conclusion is that with one of these mobile devices you don't need an ultra-portable Asus EEE or similar. I find most of my day-to-day needs are covered with my iPhone (and I assume this applies with small differences to HTC's or the last NOKIA, Samsung, etc. mobile-PDAs,let's hope software updates keep making them better), and it has the advantages of, first, having its own communication capabilities when no Wifi is available; and second, of being ACTUALLY utra-portable, i.e., it fits my jean's pockets ;)

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