Handheld combat

A struggle for dominance over the browsers that run on wireless handsets appears to be shaping up that could rival the browser wars in the personal computer market.

A struggle for dominance over the browsers that run on wireless handsets appears to be shaping up that could rival the browser wars in the personal computer market. As more companies enter the market for mini-browsers, confusion and fragmentation will likely hit the wireless Internet market.

In the U.S., Openwave Systems, formerly called Phone.com, dominates mini-browsers for wireless handsets. But in January, America Online said it was developing a Netscape-branded mini-browser with Nokia. The move threw a wrench in the mini-browser market.

Microsoft, whose PC browser experiences prompted the U.S. government's massive antitrust case, has developed a mini-browser in use in Korea. The company did not have a spokesperson available to elaborate on its strategy.

Mini-browsers play a vital role in the evolving wireless Internet. Openwave, for example, offers enhanced features to improve users' experiences, said Tim Hyland, director of product marketing at Openwave. Users must use an Openwave gateway to take advantage of those enhancements.

Most companies see mini-browsers as a way to sell other products. "Anybody out there trying to build a business around a browser won't be in business long," said Felix Lin, chairman and co-founder of AvantGo. His company has a mini-browser that's part of its server software platform designed to enable access to enterprise and Internet information from a variety of devices. "The real value isn't in the browser itself; it's in the applications and services," he said.

But differences between mini-browsers can cause problems, as they do in the more mature European market.

In Europe, Openwave admits that Nokia has done a better job of encouraging developers to use its software development kit. So even though Openwave browsers account for 70 percent of the Internet enabled handsets in Europe, the majority of applications are written for Nokia browsers. Those applications generally won't work as well on Openwave-enabled handsets.

But users with a browser that doesn't work correctly are most likely to decide the app doesn't work well or blame the operator. "I think the danger is that it will hurt or slow the growth of content available and then slow the growth of the wireless Internet," Hyland said. Openwave is working to educate developers in the U.S. and Europe about creating their apps to work ideally on multiple mini-browsers.

Unlike with browsers on PCs, wireless handset users don't have a choice. Mini-browsers must be built into the handset. That puts the onus on service providers to choose the one that will handle the most content.

But in the future, users may get to choose to download different mini-browsers, which may make things easier for consumers. "With Sun and the J2ME downloadable software, users can download all kinds of stuff," said Andy Fox, chairman and co-founder of iConverse, which offers a platform that lets apps run on any device with any browser.