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Will embedded browsers rule the Web?

The emerging embedded market could make lumbering Netscape and IE browsers look like dinosaurs
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor on

Despite Microsoft's and Netscape's claims to the contrary, the browser race isn't over yet. While the two browser kingpins continue to trade proclamations of Windows desktop domination, a number of lesser-known players targeting the embedded market are the ones pushing the most interesting technological and market developments.

In the embedded world, the rules are different.

The prettiest HTML screen display doesn't necessarily win; the most compact technology that best displays plain old text does. On cell phones or Internet appliances, customers want quick access to stock quotes, sport scores and global positioning data. A one-size-fits-all approach is superceded by embedded browsers' more customized interfaces, tailor-made to handle niche chores, like monitoring a soda machine's stock.

With these kind of diverse requirements, it's not surprising that the browser contest is more than just a two-horse race.

By no means are the big boys conceding defeat, however. Microsoft and Netscape claim they have grand browser plans across a variety of embedded devices. Microsoft recently demonstrated a research prototype of a technology called MiPad, which blends speech, pen and other multi-modal input capabilities into an interface that is planned to run on a variety of wireless devices -- from mobile phones to wrist watches. However, the companies with the more readily available and advanced offerings in the embedded browser arena are not necessarily household names.

In the embedded space, "everyone says they're the leader, but no-one has established clear cut domination," said Jupiter Communications Web technology strategies analyst, Lydia Liozides.

So why are there no runaway favourites? The embedded world consists of a number of different emerging markets, each requiring "different branding needed on different devices on different networks", Liozides said. It's also a lot tougher to develop a tight, small browser that runs well on a mobile phone than it is to create a developer-oriented, multipurpose PC browser.

One company that has already discovered the challenges of porting to multiple form factors is Opera Software, developer of the Opera browser. While Opera Software pitches its browser as a faster, smaller alternative to Internet Explorer and Navigator for Windows PCs, the company is also writing for the Mac, BeOS, Linux and EPOC platforms. Opera Software is targeting the second calendar quarter as the ship date for version 4.0 of Opera for all of these platforms.

"The worst thing that could happen to the Web is a single vendor dominating," said Opera chief technology officer, Håkon Wium Lie. "The embedded market will show that no single browser can dominate."

Because it is not focusing exclusively on the embedded device market, Opera Software has a lot of the same priorities as Microsoft and Netscape, in terms of browser development. Like the giants, Opera Software is expending considerable energy on making sure it's compliant with the latest versions of standards, including HTML, HTTP, DOM, CSS (cascading style sheets) and the like. But Opera is also adding some of its own twists, such as a split-screen HTML viewing capability it calls "PowerPoint killer".

Opera's not the only company targeting the embedded Linux space. Lineo (formerly known as Caldera Thin Clients) is finding success partnering with a variety of embedded device vendors, ranging from Motorola to Samsung.

Lineo wasn't planning on getting into the browser space. It developed its Embedix browser in response to embedded Linux customer requests for a low-resolution embedded browser, officials claim. Currently, Lineo's browser runs only on Lineo's Embedix Linux, but the company is considering decoupling the two and offering its browser for other Linux distributions, said chief executive and president, Bryan Sparks.

With its Embedix browser, Lineo is attempting to walk the fine line between a full-featured platform and a compact, portable browser. "In this space, size is a definite consideration. The output screen is a consideration. The ability to port to multiple chips, since Intel isn't dominant, is important. You need to think about peripheral support for Flash memory, disk on a chip," Sparks admitted. "But there are some areas we don't try to address, like some of the desktop plug-ins."

What Lineo does want to address, Sparks said, is the need of its hardware vendor customers for browsers for very specific vertical niches. In the not too distant future, he said, hardware companies will tune and sell customised Embedix browsers into areas like medical inventory control.

Browsers for TVs, Web phones and tablets aren't the only space where vendors are aiming to innovate. The original browser pioneer, Spyglass, has also defined a separate category it calls the "micro browser" market, where providing the best "browsing experience" is key. By dividing browsing functionality between the client and server, Spyglass is trying to carve out a niche for itself between embedded and standalone PC browsers.

Spyglass has been moving away from the desktop browser space since late 1996, when the company saw the handwriting on the wall, in terms of Microsoft's plans for PC browser domination, according to Anup Murarka, Spyglass vice president for interactive TV platforms. (Microsoft licensed Spyglass' Mosaic technology in 1995, and used it as the core of Internet Explorer.)

"In the standalone [desktop browser] space, success is determined more by content access than by anything else," said Murarka. "The Windows space has a consistent, predictable platform with one player, with 80-plus percent marketshare. In our space, there are lots of form factors, even though there is really just one set of core APIs (application programming interfaces)."

The degree to which there really is one core set of interfaces -- in the embedded or standalone browser market -- is debatable. Microsoft, for instance, offers a number of different Internet Explorer configurations for different devices, such as Pocket IE for PocketPC handhelds, Mobile Explorer for phones and TV Explorer for WebTV systems. But company officials admit that the various IE implementations have little in common beyond the "Explorer" name, because the form factor requirements are so different.

"You can't take a one-size-fits-all approach, due to the difference in physicality and inputs," said Phil Holden, group product manager for Microsoft's mobile devices division. "What you get with a Web-enabled phone is very different from what you get on a PocketPC, with high-quality, true colour screens that are a third of the size of VGA [monitors]."

Because of this, Microsoft's advances in IE marketshare on desktop PCs don't automatically translate into given leadership in the embedded space, Holden admitted.

Microsoft rival Netscape, on the other hand, seems to be counting on its history as a desktop browser leader to propel itself to embedded browser success.

It's a precarious position for Netscape, the America Online (AOL) subsidiary, given the company's much publicised delays in delivering version 6 of its Navigator product via its Mozilla open source arm. The first public beta of version 6 is slated for mid-April. Netscape is touting version 6's compliance with Web standards, its appeal to software developers as a development environment in its own right, and its inclusion of the Gecko rendering engine.

"We'll have a smaller download size and we're working on speed enhancements for quicker page display," said Chris Saito, senior director of product marketing. "We'll make customisation easier than ever before."

As to AOL/Netscape's intentions to target specific embedded devices like mobile phones, the company remains mum. "We're working there," is all Saito would say. Just as AOL is pushing its Instant Messenger technology to mobile phones, it will make similar moves with its browser, he said.

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