7 Web Browsing Tricks Make Your Smartphone Act Like An iPhone

If Web browsing sucks on your smartphone and you can't get an iPhone, there are some things you can do to make what you've got work more like what you want.

David DeJean, Contributor

August 7, 2007

16 Min Read

Admit it. The first time you saw an iPhone, the Web browsing took your breath away. It was to your smartphone's browser as the Mona Lisa is to your two-year-old's scribbles hung on your refrigerator. However, you don't have to live in a state of envy. If you can't afford or don't want an iPhone, you can improve your Web browsing experience on your smartphone (or even, in some cases, your plain old dumbphone).

The following seven mobile phone tweaks can help you at least maximize the potential of your Web browsing without forcing you to change your hardware or your service supplier. They range in complexity from bone simple to "Danger, Will Robinson!" None of them will make your phone an iPhone -- frogs only turn into princes in fairytales. But they just might make Web browsing more usable -- even enjoyable -- on your current phone.


Use Services Optimized for Your Phone

(click image for larger view)AOL's mobile portal page points to some very usable services -- MapQuest for mobile devices in particular.view the image gallery

The Safari browser on the iPhone displays correctly just about any Web page you throw at it. The browsers on most handheld devices don't. So what can you do about it? Well, one exceedingly simple thing you can do is to feed your smartphone pages it has a better chance of rendering.

Many Web sites serve up special pages or even versions of the whole site designed to display well on mobile devices. Most of these have "mobile" or "m" in the URL -- like mobile.mysite.com, m.mysite.com, mysite.com/mobile, or www.mysite.mobi. Most of these sites detect the device and browser you're using and serve up the mobile version. But if a Web site you visit doesn't display well and doesn't seem to have a mobile URL, add some of those variations to its URL and see if any work.

Some mobile-related sites offer portal pages that collect links to these sites. For example, AOL gives you a links list of its information services. MSN serves a static page that gives you a little news, weather, sports, and access to Hotmail. Palm's mobile portal for its handheld devices deserves mention for the number and variety of links it carries, not to mention a nice, clean design. (It isn't restricted to Palm devices, either.)

Yahoo defaults to a list of links, but it's a good list -- it includes an online address book and calendar, Yahoo mail, and a very easy-to-use way to get driving directions. In addition to its basic mobile portal, Yahoo also offers Yahoo!Go, a fancier mobile service that's available for only some phones (Palm OS phones are notable for their absence) and does a reasonable job of turning a minimal amount of input into a maximal amount of information.

Google's mobile services are the most customizable and arguably the most complete -- you can arrange news/weather/sports info on the page to suit yourself, and have access to a menu of Google applications in mobile format, including Gmail, Maps (which gives you driving directions), Calendar, Photos (a nicely done interface to your Picasa Web albums), and Blogger.


Use Skweezer.net To Reformat Web Pages

(click image for larger view)When you access Web pages through Skweezer.net (top left), the Skweezer server optimizes the page (center) and adds navigation.view the image gallery

One of the oldest tricks in the handheld browsing book is to proxy the page requests through a server. The server retrieves the page and preprocesses it to turn the code into something that hopefully displays better when it is served to the handheld.

Yahoo and Google still do this in their mobile portals -- you can select an option to "optimize pages for display" or something similar. But that only works on pages you can navigate to from the links in those portals. Skweezer.net does the same thing for any page -- and keeps on doing it for succeeding pages.

Skweezer is easy to use, even from phones that don't have a QWERTY keyboard, because it includes bookmarks. Once you register (it's free, with some ad support) you can add the pages you visit often to Skweezer's bookmarks list so you don't have to reenter them over and over. (And if you can bookmark Skweezer.net on your phone, that's even better.)

The Skweezer server filters the code for the Web page and reformats it. The results look very similar to "One Column" page display mode in IE Mobile: style sheets are disregarded, and HTML is rewritten so that all the major elements of the Web page are resized to fit on your screen and stacked vertically for easy scrolling. It's not pretty, but it's functional.

There's another advantage to Skweezer.net: It can cut the volume of data you're receiving significantly -- which can save you money if you're on a pay-by-the-kilobyte data plan.


Install The Opera Mobile Browser

(click image for larger view)The Opera Mobile browser offers tabs for multiple browser windows -- a feature that Internet Explorer Mobile lacks.view the image gallery

The iPhone's browser is a desktop browser. It works with Web pages the way other desktop browsers, like Firefox and Internet Explorer do -- it runs JavaScript and renders cascading style sheets and just generally does the right thing with page code. Most handheld browsers don't -- they don't render style sheets or run JavaScript, and even when they do they don't necessarily do the right thing. So what can you do? Depending on the operating system of your phone, you may able to switch browsers to something that's more functional.

There are several third-party browsers available, but the leader of the pack is clearly Opera. Opera offers two browsers for a broad variety of handhelds.

The lighter-weight version, Opera Mini, will install on just about any phone that is capable of accessing the Web (there's even a version for the BlackBerry). It includes usable bookmarking and history tools, and renders style sheets and HTML with better fidelity than most original-equipment browsers. It has some interesting features that work well on tiny screens, too, like menu-driven zooming into images that works better than it sounds. (There's a simulator on Opera's Web site that will let you compare Opera Mini to your current browser.)

Opera Mobile is a more complex product, both in terms of its features and the load it places on your device. It's available in two flavors: for smartphones that run Windows Mobile and for Pocket PC devices that run Windows Mobile Pro. (If your device has a touchscreen, it's Pocket PC-class hardware.) It's also available for smartphones running the Symbian S60 OS.

Opera Mobile is the closest thing to a desktop browser available for these handhelds. It does things like multiple windows and downloading. Upcoming version 8.65, which is currently available in beta, will add some very desktop-like features, including saving images, copying text, importing Internet Explorer bookmarks, and support for Macromedia Flash Player 7 for Pocket PCs.


Install Beyond411 On Your BlackBerry

(click image for larger view)Beyond411's integration with the BlackBerry allows it to do things browsers can't, such as add an address to the Address Book.view the image gallery

Steve Jobs' introductory demo of the iPhone from the stage at MacWorld in January was a virtuoso performance of 411: the ability to quickly get information such as phone numbers, addresses, driving directions, and store locations. But you don't need an iPhone to get good 411. One of the best ways is called Beyond411, runs on the BlackBerry and costs considerably less than an iPhone -- 100 percent less.

The free Beyond411 application offers White Pages and Yellow Pages searches;, news, sports, and weather localized to your address; Web searches; maps; driving directions; and localized shopping information. If that's not enough, you can even write your own search plug-in or download one of the 270 that already exist.

Beyond411 is not, technically speaking, Web browsing. Think of it as a client application written for the BlackBerry platform that consumes Web services and reformats them, using its own markup language, for optimal display. This makes integration easy, so that Beyond411 can add the result of a successful search directly to your address book, or email it as a vCard. And if you're lucky enough to have one of the 8800-series BlackBerrys with GPS, Beyond411 will automatically base its searches on your current location.

The information Beyond411 delivers comes from the Yahoo Web search API Mapquest and the Yokel.com local-shopping database. And if you ask to open a Web page, the app gives you the option of running it through Skweezer.net.

If you don't have a BlackBerry, you might want to try Pocket Express from Handmark. This downloadable app gives you access to a similar range of information, and is available for phones that run Palm OS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, J2ME (and BlackBerrys). There's a list of compatible devices on the site. Unlike Beyond411, Pocket Express will give you news, weather and sports as a free sample, but if you want real services you'll have to pay a few bucks a month.)


Install Google Maps on Your Phone (If It's Not Already There)

(click image for larger view)In most mobile browsers, Google Maps just shows search results. Install a Google Maps app and you get maps like the one at right.view the image gallery

One of the most valuable 411 services for mobile devices is maps, and the gold standard for maps is Google Maps. But Google Maps strains the capabilities of even desktop browsers, and most phone browsers do a lousy job or none at all -- even the iPhone comes with a separate Maps application designed to improve performance. But you don't need an iPhone to run Google Maps.

Google Maps is preinstalled on some smartphones -- the Treo 755p, for example -- and you can download the Maps app onto your Palm OS, Windows Mobile, or BlackBerry device.

The result is terrific. If you've got a touchscreen device you can drag the map or scroll it with the D-pad buttons to see more territory, zoom in and out, and even switch to the satellite-photo view. The maps are crisp and readable even on a 240 x 240 screen.

If you can't install Google Maps and really want to see a map, try Mapquest. While it won't get you draggable, scrollable Google maps, it will at least get you a map you can zoom in and out of. If what you really want is directions rather than dazzling graphics, you can get them from either Google or Yahoo! -- Yahoo! makes it a little easier with a link right on the mobile portal page.


Install SkweezeIt On Your Windows Mobile Phone

(click image for larger view)SkweezeIt asks if you want to reformat. Say yes and the page is optimized for small screens.view the image gallery

We now venture into more dangerous territory: This and the following strategy require doing things like editing your phone's registry and performing similar feats of techno-derring-do. Don't try this at home -- at least, unless you're comfortable tweaking your technology. But if you like what Skweezer.net (see above) can do for you, and you've got a Windows Mobile phone (smartphone or Pocket PC, makes no difference), you might love SkweezeIt.

Creator John Cody explains on the Skweezit Web site that he created the app because he was tired of dealing with abbreviated RSS that pointed to full-size Web pages "which can be very painful to load into Pocket Internet Explorer."

SkweezIt intercepts most attempts to launch Pocket Internet Explorer from another application (like an e-mail client or an RSS reader), and asks if you want to "Skweeze it?" If you say no, then IE launches and displays the linked page to the best of its ability. However, if you say yes, SkweezeIt proxies the URL request through Skweezer.net. The Skweezer server filters the code for the Web page and reformats it, so the page loads quicker and displays better on your device's smaller screen.

To install SkweezeIt you have to download a .ZIP file, extract Skweezeit.exe and use Windows Mobile's ActiveSync utility to transfer the file to your phone. Then comes the harder part: You must reset three registry keys to get SkweezeIt to work.

Windows Mobile is just like Windows for PCs in this respect: it stores settings in a registry. But while desktop Windows includes a registry editor (Regedit.exe), Windows Mobile doesn't. There are several third-party registry editors available. Some, like the PHM Editor and Tweaks2K2 (both available in versions for smartphones and Pocket PC devices) run directly on your phone. Others, like Mobile Registry Editor, run on your PC and sync the registry file to the phone, which may be easier (and safer) for you than using T9 text entry on a smartphone.


Watch YouTube Videos On Your Windows Mobile Pro Phone

This is the most complex fix on this list, but it's the only one actually surpasses the iPhone. You can't see YouTube videos in the Safari browser (Apple thought it was such an important feature that it put a special YouTube viewer app on the phone's home screen). But if you've got a Pocket PC phone, there are ways to play video in Internet Explorer.

The simplest is described on TreoCentral.com by a forum member who calls him/herself "zbop." It requires downloading and installing two CAB files:

The first is the TCPMP media player (download it from here). TCPMP stands for The Core Pocket Media Player -- it doesn't have anything to do with TCP/IP. It's a well-regarded media player that's also available for mobile devices running Palm, Symbian, and other OSes.

The second file, FlashVideoBundle.CAB, is attached to the forum message that includes the installation directions. You'll need to register with the forum to get this file (download it from here). It contains the supporting files you'll need to run Flash and related software.

When you've got it set up, you'll be able to play videos from four sites -- YouTube, Google, veoh, and MobeTube -- in IE Mobile. (It works only with IE, not Opera or other third-party browsers.)

If you're comfortable with that, you might want to take a look at some other hacks for Windows Mobile phones in Browsing the Web on MS Smartphone (Windows Mobile Standard) Devices from Werner "Menneisyys" Ruotsalainen, who blogs for Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine's Web site. This two-part article, his earlier Windows Mobile Web Browsing Bible and his other blog entries cover a number of advanced techniques for improving Web browsing on Windows Mobile smartphones.

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