Skyfire Launch "1.0" Browser for Video and Social Media

by Martyn Davies on 27th May 2009

Cutting their own path in the mobile browser market come Skyfire, a US-based company which until now has been running its service in ‘beta’ mode.    Today they are launching their official ‘release 1.0’ version, which marks a year of successful public trials.

Skyfire on Symbian: Hope screen shows updates from your social networks

Skyfire on Symbian: Home screen shows updates from your social networks

Skyfire is a freely downloadable application for Windows Mobile and Symbian handsets, with BlackBerry on the way.  The application is also back-ended by two data centres (UK and USA) with some of their own ‘special sauce’, of which more later.   Their browser is fast and responsive, and Skyfire’s goal is to give a faithful representation of web pages that is equivalent to the desktop browsing experience.  One important focus for Skyfire is in the area of video rendering.  Videos are a problem for mobiles not because of the bandwidth (which has rapidly improved over the last years), but because of the number-crunching that needs to be done on a 25 frame/second picture designed to be shown on a PC screen.  The rather puny CPUs built into mobiles struggle with the load, and also heavy processing means heavy drain on your battery.

Some have approached the problem by having pre-rendered versions of video stored on the net for mobiles, for example using Flash Lite.  However this “pre-cooked” way of working means that you only have mobile access to videos that have been pre-processed.  Also it requires services to keep two databases of different content, one for mobile and one for desktop.  Skyfire’s approach is to introduce their own video-crunching servers between, say, YouTube and your Nokia N95.  These servers take full Flash (Flash 10) and then video transcode the signal in real-time, giving a lower frame rate (8 frames per second), and a smaller screen rendering for mobile.   The result is that the Skyfire browser can render an original YouTube page or Vimeo page, or even blogs with embedded video, so that you have access to the entire video catalogue, live on line.

The Skyfire approach saves transmission bandwidth and also saves CPU (and therefore battery) on the mobile.  Skyfire also told The Really Mobile Project that notable successes for them have been in streaming live events (such as the Obama inauguration), which could not be viewed live with any other mobile technology.  Because they are transforming the video on-the-fly, it is possible to adapt their servers to new video formats without forcing the mobile clients to change also.  Skyfire also mention Microsoft’s streaming technology, Silverlight, as another supported technology: Silverlight videos appear on the mobile screen much as they would do on a desktop browser.

Skyfire on Windows Mobile: Presenting in-page video playback in real-time.

Skyfire on Windows Mobile: Presenting in-page video playback in real-time.

In addition to video, another key feature of Skyfire is the ability to link into your other social media services.  Your home page can feature the latest information from your Twitter account, Facebook, and in fact any RSS feed that you care to set-up.  You can also set your various ‘status’ lines on these services using Skyfire, saving on running multiple applications to keep these up-to-date.

A notable omission to Skyfire’s feature list is iPhone support.  The iPhone of course attracts a lot of developer activity thanks to its easy good looks, Apple brand and probably more importantly, the easy-to-use App Store that gives a clear channel to market.  Sadly, Apple get to veto anything from the AppStore, and currently they welcome alternative browsers in the way that most of us might welcome a locust-based snack or a Coldplay tribute band.  Skyfire say that discussions are ongoing.

Which brings us to routes to market: currently users must download and install Skyfire themselves to get the benefit, which is a problem, since most smartphone users (other than iPhone users) do not install many apps.  Skyfire have various co-operations with portals like Yahoo (who recommend Skyfire as the best browser for video viewing), and a selection of international cellcos.  In the ideal case, handsets would come bundled with the Skyfire browser already installed, for example from the Nokia factory, or in the software bundle that comes with a contract phone from the cellco.  No doubt the rash of new app stores (like the newly launched Ovi Store from Nokia), will help them to reach their market better.  Even so they already boast one million users just by using existing channels.

Skyfire is available free of charge from get.skyfire.com

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Martyn is also at VoiP User.

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