Mobile Web browsing to outstrip desktop

Web browsing on mobile devices could overtake the desktop as early as 2015, say analysts who note mobile users will expect rich Web experience similar to the PC.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Web browsing on mobile devices is catching up with the PC just as market competition between mobile browsers intensifies, said industry analysts and company execs who add that consumers expect the same rich Web experiences on the mobile platform as on the desktop.

According to its monthly State of the Mobile Web report for August, software giant Opera announced "stunning" growth in mobile Web usage worldwide, with pageviews up by more than 14 percent and data transfers increasing almost 10 percent from July.

Opera co-founder Jon von Tetzchner told ZDNet Asia that more and more people are accessing the Web from their mobile phones.

In an e-mail, von Tetzchner said that a decade ago most mobile browsers were very limited as they required special content to be written for them, whereas today, "users want access to the full Internet".

He added that "already mobile traffic is more than 4 percent of the traffic to Web sites globally, with Asia at 6 percent", and noted that in a few years' time, "mobile traffic is likely to exceed desktop traffic".

A similar prediction was made by financial services firm Morgan Stanley, which, in April, said that the mobile Internet would outstrip the desktop by 2015.

Sandy Shen, research director, communications at Gartner Asia-Pacific, said that if mobile Web ever overtook the PC, it would be because the installed base of mobile users is much larger than PC users.

In a separate report last week, Gartner said worldwide PC shipments slowed down due to less demand. More than 88.3 million PC units were shipped, growing 7.6 percent from the third quarter of last year, but still fell short of Gartner's initial forecast of 12.7 percent.

Mobile browser competition heats up
As mobile Web traffic and the demand for a rich browsing experience on mobile devices increase, various mobile browsers have also received new tweaks to gain dominance in the competitive market. These include Apple's iPhone Safari and Google's Chrome browser on Android.

Microsoft's latest mobile operating system (OS), Windows Phone 7 (WP7), was launched Oct. 12, and features a new version of its Web browser, Internet Explorer Mobile (IE Mobile), a hybrid consisting of IE7 base and some of IE8's newer features, according to Jonathan Wong, Microsoft's Asia-Pacific IE lead.

Over e-mail, Wong explained that the WP7 Web browser is designed so that it can be independently upgraded from the rest of the Windows Phone 7 firmware. He added that this "opens up the possibility of rapid frequent updates of the Web browser in Windows Phone 7".

Looking at mobile devices and desktop computers, he noted that today's sophisticated consumers do not want distinct experiences across different screen sizes, and in static and mobile environments. But he stopped short of saying that mobile would render the PC obsolete.

Wong emphasized: "Although smartphone use is increasing rapidly and will continue to do so, it isn't at the expense of the PC, it's alongside the PC." Microsoft, which also recently released the beta version of its newInternet Explorer 9 Web browser, aims to "[offer] its products in the most effective way across a multitude of screen sizes", he continued.

Gartner's Shen agreed, saying that mobile devices and the desktop are intended for different uses and would not replace one another. "Mobile is for on-the-go, [whereas] the PC is for the 'sit down' experience", she added.

Another Web browser company executive, Mozilla's Stuart Parmenter, said that "in the future, there will be a convergence between people's Web experience", and then the device will no longer matter.

Mozilla also unveiled its newest mobile browser on Oct. 7, Firefox 4 betafor Android and Maemo.

Parmenter, who is Mozilla's director of mobile, said the latest version of Firefox for mobile is built on the same technology platform as Firefox for the desktop and also optimized for browsing on a mobile phone. One such feature is Firefox Sync, which creates a seamless Web browsing experience between desktop and mobile, he described.

In his e-mail, Parmenter said: "Firefox 4 beta for mobile is a significant step forward in sharing a personalized, seamless and encrypted Web experience across devices."

Hurdles to mobile Web experience
One analyst, however, pointed out that despite the growth in mobile browsing, mobile Web browsers continue to lag behind their desktop counterparts in many significant ways.

Richard Edwards, principal analyst at Ovum, said that bandwidth, computing power, screen size and data input still impede the mobile browsing experience.

A critical area which needs to be addressed is that of usability--working around the limitations of the mobile device in terms of display area and data input, he said in an e-mail.

Edwards continued that smartphones have access to fast network connections today, but these aren't always available. Hence, network optimization is still important, he added.

Opera's von Tetzchner also said that speed is key when it comes to mobile browsing. Opera's various mobile browsers such as Opera Mini and Opera Mobile "compress data to give a very significant speed advantage on slow networks, making for a very good user experience on mobile phones".

"Users want two things. They want the [real] Web, and they want it now," said von Tetzchner.

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