The Tear-down of the iPhone: Safari

by rmtwrkr

So now we reach one of the most hyped-up features of Apple’s iPhone: The Safari web browser. So is it the best mobile browser bar none, or just another emperor’s new clothes? Let’s see..

When I initially saw the unveiling of the iPhone at Macworld by Steve Jobs I was impressed. But I also was a little bit skeptical of the ‘Internet Communicator’ part of the iPhone, after all, this was in some way the ‘Holy Grail’ of Mobile devices. So there I was watching the Keynote with my Nokia E61 sat beside me. “You have nothing to worry about” I muttered to my Nokia, knowing that the Web Browser inside the E61 was based on Webkit, and so basically the iPhone and the Nokia would give the same relative browsing experience…


Nokia had been making great advances in Mobile browser tech, and easily outclassed all other device’s web browsers, like Palm, WinMob etc. The ‘Web’ app on the Nokia was fast, had a ‘mini-map’ overview of a web page that you could move around, and rendered pages like TEH REAL INTERNETZ. Then the iPhone came out. And showed just who was the boss in this battle. Why? How? Because simply put, the iPhone’s Safari app is far and away the closest we have EVER got to a seamless desktop browser experience. It is so syrupy-smooth to use, so unbelievably familiar feeling to Mac users, that it makes me want to cry. Really. Thats not to say that it is 100% perfect, as there are things that could make it better, but really this was the first time I had ever felt that I had a super quick beautiful web browser in my pocket. Firstly, upon your initial Sync when you get the iPhone it asks if you want to sync Bookmarks from Safari (on the Mac, IE on the PC). This is great, as you don’t know HOW annoyed I was with having to manually add bookmarks on my Nokia E61. I gave up in the end. I only had about 20 bookmarks in my E61. I have about 300 on my iPhone. And I didn’t need to remember URLs, nor have to visit and add any of them. They were just there. Oh, and if I do find a cool website while using my iPhone and bookmark it, it will show up in Safari on my Mac, in exactly the folder I designated for the bookmark. Nice.

The Navigation of web pages is another thing that just cannot be replicated on other devices. To touch, drag, double tap, expand, shrink etc a webpage with your finger has no equal. Navigating a website using a small plastic nub of a joystick or plastic 5-way pad is just totally crap in comparison, and basically I just could not do it with my E61 after I had used the iPhone for a while. It was excruciatingly inefficient. And slow. Plus the relatively high-resolution coupled with pixel-density of the iPhone’s multi-touch screen is really beautiful. Webpages jump out at you, beckoning you to caress, and zoom around to your hearts content.

Of course, things could be improved upon. Such as features like Password management, which the newest version of Nokia’s Web browser has. Although I am not sure even about that one (it’s a security thing..) Maybe a Keychain-like password management that asks you for the keychain password one time every session? hmmm…
Also the usual suspects like Flash and Java are not supported (javascript is though). I am ambivalent to Flash, I don’t really care or miss it on the iPhone as on the desktop it pisses me off anyway. But I suppose it would be nice to have as an option (switch on/off).

One interesting thing I could test between the E61 and the iPhone was render/download speed. There is a lot of hoohaa about 3G (UMTS), and specifically on how the iPhone doesn’t have it. Well, it doesn’t, it has 2.5G (EDGE). So I did a little speed test to see the real-world speed differences between the two technologies. I had both phones with absolute full signal strength for their data, render the same webpages after I had cleared the history and caches. And..well…the iPhone rendered the webpages an average of only 1 second slower than the E61. 1 SECOND. I was expecting this much-hyped HUGE difference. Nope, just a second.

Using the iPhone’s web browser over EDGE is not really any different in the real world to using the E61 over UMTS. Now HSUPA (3.5G-4G) is a different matter entirely. There is a real boost of speed with that tech. But really, given all the grumbling about EDGE vs 3G, it’s all nonsense and marketing hype in my book.

To summarize, the iPhone’s web browser basically has no competition AT ALL at the moment. It’s not just the fact of using Safari, or syncing with the Mac, but the coupling of all that PLUS the multi-touch screen PLUS the resolution PLUS pixel density that sets it years apart from other devices.

Right, I’m off to go and surf the net while ‘dropping the kids off at the pool’

Next up: iPod