Our Hands-On with SkyFire

ESPN as seen on SkyFire One of the companies whose presentation and product stood out during the first day of the DEMO 08 conference was SkyFire, a browser for Windows Mobile devices that, in their words, puts the full web on a mobile device. We had a few minutes to play around with it on an HTC Mogul at the company’s booth, and although it’s not yet ready for primetime, it did an excellent job of reproducing full web sites on mobile devices. When it debuts (the beta version should be available in the next few weeks), SkyFire will be available for Windows Mobile 5 and 6 devices, with support for other operating systems to come later. The app loads in about 15 seconds, not the most blinding of speeds, but the company says they’re working to improve that. It’s a proxy-based service, so Web requests go through SkyFire’s service, which reformats Web sites for its browser. Even so, it was extremely fast, loading pages just as quickly as a traditional browser. ESPN.com loaded in about 5 seconds, complete with the annoying video that starts playing automatically. This time, though, it was a welcome surprise, as it streamed smoothly, as did Family Guy videos on YouTube, and 30 Rock videos on Hulu. We noticed very little, if any lag, pixilation, or stuttering. With the Mogul’s touchscreen, we used the stylus to zoom in and scroll around pages. Tapping on the screen once creates a small translucent window that you can move around to select what part of a Web page you want to zoom in on. Then, you can also use the stylus to drag the Web page around the screen. In general, it was very intuitive–we can only imagine what browsing would be like using the iPhone’s multi-touch screen–and resolving the image of the page was nearly instantaneous. We launched Google Maps, and were able to zoom in and out just as fast as on a regular browser. The browser also works on non-touchscreen phones such as a BlackJack by using the d-pad to navigate around a Web page. The experience is decent there, too, but was not nearly as much fun. Interestingly, when you want to enter data into a text box, SkyFire opens up its own box at the bottom of the screen for you to enter text, which is then automatically put into the Web page’s text box. It seems a little odd at first, but it takes some of the guesswork out of performing similar tasks on a mobile browser–there’s nothing more annoying than trying to type in miniscule, irregularly-sized boxes. The browser also features tabs for RSS feeds, bookmarks, and history; searches are automatically routed through Google. The beta test of SkyFire will help the company determine what sort of demand will be put on its servers when thousands of people start pulling up graphics-intensive Web pages. At the same time, the company is also looking for the right revenue model: a royalty-based model (where carriers pay to have it preloaded on phones), a subscription model, or one that generates revenue based on search traffic. However it ends up, we can’t wait to get Skyfire to test out ourselves.

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