Mobile microbrowser taps into full Web

A new browser for wireless devices named ThunderHawk is taking flight, making creator Bitstream the latest company to provide a personal computer-style Web browsing experience on mobile devices.

A new browser for wireless devices named ThunderHawk is taking flight, making creator Bitstream the latest company to provide a personal computer-style Web browsing experience on mobile devices.

The company this week filed for about a dozen patents and began seeking out partnerships with carriers and personal digital assistant makers to embed the browser into their devices.

ThunderHawk developer Sampo Kaasila says the new browser aims to address one of the biggest problems facing the mobile Web: There isn't much to see.

Wireless Web pages are usually stripped down versions of their wired brethren, without the graphics, pictures or in some instances even hyperlinks. The disappointing content is one of the main reasons analyst firms such as Gartner believe the mobile Web is struggling to attract customers. Just last week, two studies gave the mobile Web bad grades. Both said that more than half of all Internet-ready wireless phone customers are abandoning the glossier features.

The ThunderHawk software is the industry's latest example, but Bitstream is not alone in its quest to offer new browser technology that could improve wireless Internet access.

Another mobile browser gaining prominence is called Opera, created by a Norwegian company of the same name. Last week, the mobile software unit of Britain's Psion said it had chosen Opera as the browser for its handsets. Similarly, in May, IBM and Symbian announced a partnership to work on technology that will allow people to access their work e-mail, calendar and corporate information via their cell phones.

In the past the wireless industry has supported standards such as WAP (wireless application protocol) or other technologies that offer limited, or stripped-down Internet content for wireless phones and handheld computers.

The ThunderHawk software, however, allows viewers to see the exact Web page that is on the wired Internet by having Bitstream server computers compress the Web site into a tiny file, Kaasila said. The server performs much of the compression, so it doesn't demand the limited memory of most mobile devices, he said.

Currently, the browser is designed for high-end handheld computer devices with color screens, such as the Compaq iPaq and others, said Kaasila. According to Bitstream, the browser also is intended for the Japanese market, where most mobile phones being shipped to stores this year contain large color screens.

Bitstream hopes its new software will eventually challenge Openwave Systems, which is in use on about 70 percent of Internet-ready wireless phones.

"This is a disruptive technology," Kaasila said. "Openwave may very well be interested as a business partner. Maybe they can use this for the next wave (of mobile devices)."

Openwave's Tim Hyland, director of product marketing, said there's nothing wrong with Bitstream's approach of targeting higher-end handheld devices and Japan's advanced phones. It's just not what Openwave is choosing to focus on right now.

"There's nothing really wrong with that. But we don't believe that's the target for mass volume," Hyland said. "Once you start getting into smaller displays, (showing an entire Web site) doesn't make sense any more."

Openwave demonstrated an upgrade of its own browser at the Cellular Telephone and Internet Association annual show in Las Vegas this year. The new Openwave browser also aims to make the wireless Web more PC-like, including drop-down menus and support for color displays.

Analysts aren't as enthusiastic though about squeezing more content into handhelds and wireless phones. While the technology may be cutting edge, the idea of replicating the experience of a personal computer on a handheld device is a step backward, not forward, analysts say.

"Haven't we all seen that consumers don't want to Web surf on their mobiles?" asks Bryan Prohm of Gartner.

In the meantime, Bitstream and the others will work to change that.