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Microsoft shows its hand to stay in the mobile web war

Shallow waters for Deepfish

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Analysis Microsoft had its hand forced this week into unveiling just a little of its arsenal in the war to win the browser battle on the mobile phone. Microsoft clearly won the PC browser war by giving away and bundling its Internet Explorer, and then by creating a rich, open platform which along with the Visual Studio tools allowed developers to get the best out of browser based applications.

Today it is clearly lagging in browser penetration in handsets and there is an argument that says it is so much the enemy of all the major handset makers that a browser from Microsoft will never be allowed sufficient access to the hardware architecture to be viable.

Repeatedly it has been asked of Microsoft, why not throw away Windows Mobile and build a new generation of software on top of the prevalent smart phone operating systems – Symbian and Linux, or add Windows Mobile only as an afterthought?

But while operators couldn’t give two hoots about whether Microsoft has control of the device they buy into, handset makers like Nokia are just never going to co-operate, so Microsoft is constantly forced back into developing only for its own platform, with no access to the bulk of the market.

So far Nokia, with its browser strategy embracing both Apple’s Safari and Opera, has been ahead of the game in trying to promote a standard and intuitive way to browse web pages on a handset. Nokia also sits with Series 60 in the development role that Microsoft occupies on PCs with Visual Studio, and also Nokia and Apple embrace AJAX and Widgets, the browser development environment and prefabricated applets.

There are perhaps three ways, one of which has been seen not to work, of making web pages look okay on a small screen. The first way, to insist that the web developer also builds a specialist handset version of its pages, just doesn’t work, as earlier version of WAP showed us.

That leaves two more possibilities, either we have the browser behave so intelligently that it can fluidly re-lay out the page, using some underlying understanding of how big text and graphics have to be on this particular sized screen for humans to be comfortable with it, or we can change the way the browser functions.

And while the former approach is exemplified by the Apple iPhone and Nokia’s efforts, the latter is the approach that Microsoft is experimenting with in its Deepfish browser, issued for controlled download earlier this week.

The Deepfish principle is simple. The web page downloads as a thumbnail, which is fairly impossible to view properly but acts as a navigation aid, and then the consumer is forced into the extra step of having to zoom in to the particular part of the web page that has the data or graphics that he or she wants to view.

The application is now available in a limited private beta from Microsoft and it has already exceeded the number of controlled copies that the company is happy issuing. There are no clues to when the browser may be offered as a completed piece of software.

Of course Deepfish is only aimed at Windows Mobile at present, for all the reasons we said before, but if Microsoft can precipitate a new paradigm in browser usage (locate and zoom) then it will have the intellectual property to invade the rest of the mobile market, potentially through patent royalties or partnerships.

One of the reasons that some analysts see for Deepfish arriving now is the fact that the Mozilla based Minimo project also went into free beta this week, offering a replacement for the Windows Mobile browser

This browser supports both JavaScript and AJAX, has tab browsing, RSS support, and its own security tools and support for widgets. In other words the open source community is attempting to invade the small area of mobile turf that Microsoft has preserved for itself. Perhaps the answer was to have Microsoft Live Labs give a preview of Deepfish, before the rival caught on. Deepfish still does not have support for ActiveX controls, AJAX, cookies, Javascript, and HTTP POST.

Microsoft Labs described Deepfish's goal as "preserving the rich layout and full form of documents on mobile devices, while providing novel ways of effectively navigating that content on small screens." We might describe it as preserving Microsoft’s (slim) chance of building a surviving handset software platform for the next huge mobile war, the battle for control of the mobile web.

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Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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