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Viewing Your Sites on Handsets in a Flash

Posted by Mort Greenberg on May 3, 2008

Article Source:

May 2, 2008; Page B8

Surfing the Web on cellphones is a major headache. Despite advances in recent years, many sites don’t load properly, and multimedia content often doesn’t play. Now, the wireless industry is trying to radically improve mobile Web browsing by making it as much like the PC experience as possible.

In a step in that direction, several major handset makers said Thursday they have struck an agreement with Adobe Systems Inc. to bring its Flash multimedia player to more cellphones. Flash powers online video on sites like YouTube and is used to develop Web pages with animation and other advanced features.

Adobe says Flash is available on 98% of Web-enabled desktop computers but only 30% of cellphones. One prominent holdout is Apple Inc., which doesn’t offer Flash on its iPhone device. Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs has resisted Adobe’s efforts to include the software, saying he wasn’t satisfied with how it worked on the iPhone.

“Flash video is the most-popular form of video on the Internet today; it’s really important to be able to bring that to mobile,” said Gary Kovacs, vice president of product management and marketing for Adobe’s mobile-devices unit.

About 14% of U.S. cellphone users accessed the Web at least once in February, according to M:Metrics Inc., which tracks wireless-industry trends. Slow wireless networks and confusing rate plans are part of the problem. One of the biggest remaining roadblocks is the clumsy presentation of Web content on a phone. While some sites, such as the Weather Channel and MTV, have mobile-only versions, most don’t.

Adobe’s agreement with cellphone makers Sony Ericsson, Nokia Corp., LG Electronics Inc., and Motorola Inc. is part of a broader move by industry players to improve the mobile Web browsing experience. Sony Ericsson is a joint venture of Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson and Sony Corp.

Wireless carriers such as Sprint Nextel Corp. and Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile USA Inc. are preloading advanced Web browsers from companies such as Opera Software ASA of Norway, Teleca AB of Sweden and Google Inc. into handsets. Among other features, the browsers are good at reformatting Web pages designed for PCs to make them viewable on phones with 2.5-inch screens. Carriers are also integrating technologies from companies such as Openwave Systems Inc. that decipher content from PC Web pages for multiple browsers and cellphones.

Wireless carriers have a huge stake in jump-starting mobile Web browsing. As their revenues from basic voice service decline, they are relying increasingly on advanced Web and multimedia services to power their growth. T-Mobile USA’s chief technology officer, Cole Brodman, says industry plans to sell mobile advertising and digital content depend on getting more users to browse the Web.

“Carriers and their partners need to solve the problem of mobile Web adoption before any of these business models make any sense at all,” Mr. Brodman says.

Browsers are one major focus. While some mobile devices, such as Apple’s iPhone, come with advanced PC-like browsers, most don’t. Consumers can download high-end browsers onto some handsets, but carriers believe they can increase usage dramatically by preloading the software.

Sprint recently began loading Teleca’s browser in Samsung Electronics Inc.’s Instinct, a sleek iPhone look-alike the carrier announced last month. The phone, which will be available in June, is able to display regular HTML pages. T-Mobile is planning to come out this year with the first phone using Google’s Android cellphone operating platform, which includes a Web browser intended for the mass market. T-Mobile already includes the Opera browser and the NetFront browser made by Access Co. Ltd. of Japan in some of its high-end phones, and it plans to extend such browsers further into its lineup.

Making video from Web sites work on cellphones is widely seen as a crucial component of the new shift. Adobe’s wider distribution of Flash is one significant step. As part of Thursday’s deal, Adobe is dropping its traditional licensing fees and making changes to its technology that simplify its integration into mobile phones.

Other partners in the initiative include content providers such as General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal and carriers such as Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC. Adobe says it is pursuing other efforts to enable Flash on the iPhone.

Other video formats for the Web are likely to turn up in U.S. cellphones. Montreal-based start-up Vantrix, for instance, offers a technology that carriers can plug into their networks to make popular Web-based video formats viewable on phones. The company says it has signed up carriers such as NTT DoCoMo and France Telecom‘s Orange SA and is pursuing U.S. carriers.

Silicon Valley start-up Skyfire Labs Inc. is rolling out a browser that essentially accomplishes the same task, making videos on and other sites viewable, while rendering Web sites as much like the PC versions as possible.

The new technologies have some limitations. Many basic cellphones don’t have enough memory or processing power to support them. And some of the tools can unintentionally load a PC Web page even when a better mobile-only version exists.

Mark Collins, vice president of consumer data at AT&T Inc., the largest U.S. wireless carrier by subscribers, says the company is evaluating several technologies to bring better Web access to its mass-market handset lineup beyond the iPhone. “We’re in an in-between phase right now, given the current limitations on devices and technology and the software solutions that are available,” Mr. Collins says.

Some in the industry say cellphones won’t ever truly be able to duplicate the PC Web, regardless of how fancy browsers and other technologies get. T-Mobile’s Mr. Brodman says some Web services that are packed with content and features, like MySpace and Facebook, are best offered as specialized software applications that consumers can download. Both social networking sites offer mobile software that is available on select devices.

Write to Amol Sharma at


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