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Accessing the web with NetFront. Print E-mail
Written by SymbianOne   
Wednesday, 26 November 2003

The market for mobile web browsers is split between products with a mobile or PC heritage. NetFront from Japanese developer ACCESS has been mobile from its first incarnation on i-mode handsets. ACCESS now has its sights on a wider market for its compact browser, and Symbian OS is one of the key platforms they are targeting. (November 26, 2003)

Headquartered in Tokyo, Japan, with offices in the US, China and Germany, ACCESS has been developing embedded software for over 20 years. Their initial work on Internet protocol stacks led to the creation of an application suite for NTT DOCOMO's i-mode phones. This suite is now widely deployed in i-mode phones for both the Japanese market as well as internationally. While the i-mode application suite includes a Java VM and messaging client in addition to a browser, all based on a shared library for key functions such as parsing and rendering, it is the browser component which ACCESS are looking to deploy onto a wider range of operating systems and the key operating systems ACCESS is targeting is Symbian OS.

"ACCESS has always taken a different approach to those developers building browsers for the rest of the mobile world," said Claudia Hoeck, Strategy and Marketing Manager with ACCESS Systems Europe. "While other developers have been using WAP our browser technology has always used standard internet technology as much as possible. So in our original i-mode browser we were using a subset of standard internet functionality. Now of course we are seeing the standards start to converge, WAP 2.0 is using a web markup language, its happening in protocol stacks too with technology such as wireless profiled TCP/IP, which means NetFront is ideally positioned to address the browsing needs of a range of new mobile devices."

It is this heritage that Claudia believes gives ACCESS an advantage as they have been implementing web browsing in a lightweight mobile browser for many years, and to date can boast over 250 commercial deployments. So as mobile and wired web technologies have converged ACCESS has realised that their technology can be brought to other mobile platforms. ACCESS sees Symbian OS as one of the most important new platforms and it is the focus of their activities at present, however they also support other platforms such as Palm and Linux, as well as a range of proprietary operating systems.

Written in a mixture of C and C++ NetFront is ACCESS's second generation browser. The original browser, Compact NetFront Plus, was widely deployed in i-mode and while NetFront 3 has inherited several elements of core code from NetFront Plus it's architecture is radically different. This difference is to facilitate NetFront 3's implementation onto multiple platforms while being able to maintain the same core browser technology across all the supported platforms. "NetFront's architecture is modular and designed to be flexible," explained Claudia. "We have the ability to quickly configure an implementation by plugging in or out certain modules and creating a tailored package." While this technology means that each implementation can be tightly configured it also allows additional features to be added post implementation by an operator or device owner.

In many respects NetFront's architecture reflects ACCESS's commercial philosophy as much as a technological one. "Historically we have worked closely with operators to understand their needs and build solutions which fulfill those needs, indeed we continue working with operators in this way today", said Claudia. "In addressing Operator's requirements we have come to recognize that our products must be able to show adaptability to meet specific needs and requirements."

While the architectural flexibility of NetFront is important ACCESS's key development focus at the moment is the user experience. "We have been focusing heavily on usability in the last few months", said Claudia. "We have a number of improvements nearing completion and these will be reflected in forthcoming announcements."

Load NetFront up on a Nokia 3650 and the first thing you will probably notice is the install size, at 1.3 Mb it is relatively large and is larger than some rival products. However despite the large install NetFront is impressively frugal in terms of execution memory and it is possible to run several other applications on a Nokia 3650 while NetFront is active, particularly when using it in text-only mode. NetFront also reacts intelligently to the available memory, for example, it will offer the option to display a page in a text-only view when there is insufficient memory to render it with graphics, it also appears to shut down other applications in the background as it recognizes the need for additional memory.

NetFront renders pages in a narrow screen format requiring the user to only scroll up and down to navigate the page, left and right scrolls jump sequentially across the available hyperlinks in the page. ACCESS claims this patented Smart-Fit technology provides a more accurate rendering of the page, and does not drop forms, banners and sponsors ads, which they suggest rival technologies, such as Opera's Small Screen Rendering, can do.

Another important feature of NetFront is that it incorporates hooks for the use of PKI in addition to standard SSL and TSL security. This makes NetFront a ready platform for highly secure consumer services or enterprise applications.

It has several features which help not only with internal memory usage but also should minimize the network traffic while maximizing the web experience, such as an option to load images only as they are scrolled to on a page.

It also nicely integrates with the messaging application so the emails can be created for mailto fields found in web pages. It also offers the ability to send pages via the full range of built in messaging options.

One of the challenges with compact web browsers is how well they manage to render web pages designed for desktop PC's. NetFront does a respectable job, certainly for the majority of pages visited, although some pages with complex layouts employing frames and high end graphic are not rendered well.

"NetFront's intelligent rendering is capable of reproducing a developer's page on a small screen," said Claudia. "While there are no special tricks a web designer has to employ obviously pages which have been well designed and have a clear clean structure, as they should have for a PC browser, will be more efficiently rendered by NetFront. However there are limits and pages which use sophisticated features probably won"t render well in NetFront." Developer's who wish to ensure their pages work with NetFront can use a Window' based emulator, available on request, to check their content's compatibility.

While ACCESS's long term strategy is to work with handset vendors and network operators to have NetFront delivered in the box they are currently selling NetFront for the Nokia 3650 through web retailers such as Handango.


The market for web browsers for mobile devices is in sharp contrast to the desktop browser market where the choice is very limited. ACCESS is competing with a number of intelligent browser clients as well as a number of gateway services in attempting to address this market. It will be interesting to see how they progress as recent announcements suggest Opera has a significant lead in the Symbian OS market. However it should not be impossible for ACCESS to catch up, they seem to have a good quality product and the need to achieve differentiation, both between device manufactures and network operators should provide them with plenty of opportunities.

Web:www.access.co.jp or www.access-sys-eu.com

 

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 14 October 2008 )
 


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