Last Updated: Friday, 1 February 2008, 14:54 GMT
The mobile web takes off
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click

It is estimated that just one in five people with phones that are able to connect to the net actually do. But the iPhone, however, is having a profound effect on the willingness of its users to go online.

iPhone users are regularly using their phone to go online

The Apple iPhone's touch controls make navigation on its large screen fairly straightforward. The device has helped turn that internet statistic on its head.

Figures from mobile analysts, M:Metrics, for the first three months of use in the US suggest that 85.9% of owners use it to go online. And according to research company, The Kelsey Group, 44% of Americans would consider upgrading their phone if it gave them "better internet access."

The iPhone has been marketed with an "all you can eat" data plan - a flat rate cost that is becoming more readily available to all phone users.

Robin O'Kelly, head of corporate affairs at T-Mobile UK, said: "Flat rate pricing made a huge difference to us. I think people felt far more comfortable, as is understandable, and we saw usage increase rapidly."

"I think that is where the industry as a whole has now gone. It has to be the way forward."

While sexy form factors and style are important, most of us do not have a posh phone or a super-fast data connection. For us mere mortals, it is a big jump to get a good-looking speedy web service on our handset.

New thinking

There is a lot of information on an internet web page, and one company in Norway has an idea about how to handle them better for mobile users.

Opera Mini
Opera Mini syncs links on a computer with a mobile phone

Rather than give it to you just as you would see it on a desktop, they scrunch it down to just 20% of the size, and then send it to you.

That means lower data rates because you are receiving less, and less processing on your handset means the speeds are lightning fast.

It is called Opera Mini but just how fast is it? With just a three or four-bar bulk standard GPRS signal many of the news web pages we were after took a pretty speedy six or seven seconds.

Even though Opera currently accounts for just a few percent of the mobile browser market its servers deal with about a quarter of all of Norway's data traffic.

Its charged-for full-fat mobile version can stream embedded video formats too, something the mobile versions of Safari and Internet Explorer have struggled with in the past.

But Opera does not want to stop there. Head of engineering at Opera Software, Christen Krogh said: "You're in your office, you open your browser, and you see some things you'd like to read. You click through, start reading an article, but then you've got to go somewhere so you grab your mobile phone and you run."

"So on the bus or at home you take your phone, open your browser and there is the same page, you can just continue to read.

"That's about connecting the browser experience, not paying attention to whether it's on a desktop, mobile, gaming console, set top box or whatever."

What he is describing is not syncing as such - all the details are saved on the firm's servers, which we tap into each time we hop on the net.

Streaming online video content can be tricky, one of several challenges developer Picsel is working on.

Their media content player allows flash video streaming within the web page, just like on the desktop. But what is really impressive is Picsel's re-rendering technology - it seems no matter how much zooming you do, the image stays pin sharp.

Tailored experience

And while browsers are slowly getting easier to use, some of us just cannot wait.

"We have seen a healthy growth, albeit only 20% of the browsing audience, going off and finding other applications to download to access news and information services," said Paul Foote, senior analyst at M:Metrics.

Widgets are becoming increasingly popular on mobiles

"I think this is a call from consumers to improve the user experience and the speed, so people are looking around for alternatives."

Increasingly we will use widgets or mini-programs to tailor what is available right to our home screen; directly connect to the weather forecast, photo-sharing site, or find local train times.

One available app traces the phone's signal, finds the nearest train station, then displays the timetable and prices, reducing the need to tap keys or search web pages.

In fact, we might end up bypassing the browser and keyboard completely.

Mobile Google

Now Google wants a slice of your phone. Its project, Android, will offer an open-source operating system and browser capable of supporting apps and widgets thought up by just about anyone, which could help us and Google.

Google's Android

Guy Kewney of said: "If I'm using my handset, the phone knows where I am. If I have an advertiser who sells things that the handset has seen me buy in the past, it's very easy for them to say to this advertiser 'he's coming around the corner, have you got anything to offer him?'"

"Your phone goes beep and up comes a little advert saying 'you always like a latte this time of day, there's a special on the corner round there'.

"That's the sort of thing we're looking towards; a spy in your pocket which Google can talk to and whisper in the ear of and it can whisper back to Google."

In a few days time the world's biggest annual mobile phone conference takes place, when we will get some more clues as to how the industry is planning to entice the rest of us online.

Google 'improves' mobile search
30 Jan 08 |  Technology
Q&A: Google's Android
06 Nov 07 |  Technology
Yahoo chief opens the mobile web
08 Jan 08 |  Technology
The whole of the net in your hand
01 Oct 07 |  Technology

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