Smartphone Browser Shootout: Palm, BlackBerry, HTC Vs. iPhone - InformationWeek
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Smartphone Browser Shootout: Palm, BlackBerry, HTC Vs. iPhone

Has Apple succeeded in setting a new mobile Web-browsing paradigm? We examine how the Palm Treo, BlackBerry Curve, and HTC Wing stack up against the iPhone.

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Very little that has been said about the other phones applies to Apple's new iPhone. There's no need to compare the Safari browser on the iPhone with a desktop browser. It is a desktop browser.

The Apple iPhone's Safari browser renders the page the same way a desktop browser would, complete with support for cascading style sheets.

(Click image to enlarge.)

Tap the address bar with a finger (no stylus necessary) and the intelligently designed onscreen keyboard opens, complete with keys for the period, forward slash, and even a ".com" shortcut key right there, not hidden under an ALT key or on a second screen. Touch the Go button and the page appears. Not in "1 Column Mode" or squeezed into the screen. It appears as itself -- small, of course, but complete.

Too small? Touch your thumb and forefinger to the screen and spread them apart. The page grows in proportion. Touch the screen again to drag the page in any direction, not just up/down or right/left.

Notice what you haven't done yet: You haven't opened a single menu.

And there are only six icons on the screen: a plus sign (to add a bookmark), a circular arrow (the Go button), Previous, Next, a book (to open bookmarks), and a stack of pages bearing a number. The number is how many Web pages you have open, and touching the icon opens the page gallery - flick through it to find the page you want, and touch to open it.

If you're a lover of good user interface, this is as good as it currently gets. Yet wonderful as it is, it's only as good as the support it gets from the iPhone hardware. The multi-touch screen technology, in particular, is a key element of the iPhone's success at Web browsing. Multi-touch supports a vocabulary of touchscreen gestures that replace hundreds of menus. Additionally, the iPhone has enough memory at its disposal to support multiple open windows, a huge usability feature. The screen redraws after you zoom into or out of a page almost instantly so you see it at the best fidelity -- clearest pictures, sharpest fonts. And screen resolution of 480 x 320 pixels is one giant leap for handheld devices.

There are precisely three settings that affect the browser display, all listed under "Security" on the iPhone's browser settings menu: JavaScript on/off, Plug-ins on/off, and Block Pop-ups on/off. No controls for CSS -- it just works (the CMP page looks as good on the iPhone as it does on a desktop). No display modes -- no need for them, because you interact directly with the page to set the display you want.

The iPhone isn't perfect -- it has some of the same problems with memory-hogging Web applications that other smartphones do. There's no Flash support, for starters, no Java. But there is real Web browsing, and that makes all the difference.

The usual word for Apple interfaces is "intuitive." They're not. There's no intuitive reason why the plus sign beside the Safari address bar means "add a bookmark" rather than "open the history list" -- in fact, it makes rather more sense for it to open the history list, because that's something you do more often than adding a bookmark. (The history list is the first item on the bookmarks page, if you're curious.)

The iPhone browser interface is a success not because it's intuitive, but because the interface is discoverable at a level almost below conscious thought. Once the iPhone teaches you that touching the screen pays off in control, you're off and running.

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