This has been a fairly computer-free weekend, mostly due to my having been out and about most of the time and the insidious heat (42C outside on occasion), which makes it somewhat of a hassle to sit at a computer indoors.
And yet, I’ve been mulling the state of affairs of mobile browsing and its current cross-platform darling, Opera Mini. In my spare time, I’ve been looking at the way it looks and feels across a number of devices, ranging from your bog-standard RAZR to touchscreen-enabled devices like the LG Prada.
And if you haven’t tried out the (otherwise rather limited and GPRS only) Prada yet, allow me to say that the Opera Mini 4 beta works beautifully on it, allowing you to drag scroll/pan a page with your finger, tap a column to zoom in, etc. – very much like the iPhone, except for the lack of support for pinch/zoom gestures and… text.
Yep, you read that right – at least on the device I tested, the beta could not display any text at all.
Having since installed it on a few other touch-enabled devices, I believe it’s just a font bug (and, considering the way Mini currently renders pages on an E90, the current beta seems to have some issues with screens larger than, say, 240×320).
Anyway, after tapping, dragging and clicking my way through my favorite sites during the past few weeks, I’ve built up my usual list of shortcomings and likely improvements to the current Opera Mini beta, some of which are also applicable to other mobile applications.
And guess what, there’s five of them. Not just because I like the number (focusing on the top 5 things helps getting the point across), but because Opera Mini is a triumph of mobile engineering, and is, overall, pretty damn good indeed.
1. So this is small text?
For instance, on an E90 the “small” font is about the size of the “medium” font on the native browser, meaning that you end up wasting most of the gorgeous 800×352 pixel display with the equivalent of 14-point body text, and in some column layouts I find myself switching back to the native WebKit browser just to be able to read text without scrolling every two sentences or so.
Now, I don’t want Opera to expand the font selection range to include “minuscule”, but I’d like to have better, dynamic control of font sizes when zooming on a page.
I understand it’s not an easy trick to pull off in J2ME land – but then again neither is foreign script support, which is my number two complaint about text (i.e., I can’t read text in many languages even if the phone supports them natively – and yes, that includes Mandarin 60_60).
2. Through the funny mirror
As much as I like Mini’s attempt at fitting things into nice, orderly columns that are about the physical width of my handset display, sometimes that renders a page completely unusable.
Slashdot is a notable example (the main story is squashed no matter what I try to do, on any of the devices I’ve used), and I simply cannot seem to be able to get meaningful results from unchecking “fit to width” on several other pages where I really wanted to have the text render without constraints.
I suppose this is a bug, since there hardly seems any point to having a rendering engine that can understand and render full-page previews and yet insists on delivering a nearly bottomless vertical column of text, neatly sandwiched in two thirds of the screen’s worth of whitespace.
And yes, I know this is a beta. It just seems like somewhat of an oversight to let this reach beta stage (no matter how that is defined these days).
3. If it’s like a desktop browser, why is bookmark management so awful?
Bookmark management is something everyone is familiar with, and is something no mobile browser seems to get quite right. I’m deep into Series 60 territory these days, and the “smart bookmarks” feature is somewhat helpful, but what I really want from a mobile browser is a simple, no-fuss way to sync my bookmarks with my desktop.
After all, if the mobile is to become a suitable extension of my web surfing sessions, it has to provide some form of continuity – otherwise we’ll just keep on having “two internets” – one on my desktop, where I can go back to where I was three hours ago without skipping a beat, and another, ghetto-like, patchy little window that lets me go some places I specifically designate (and often plan for) by painstakingly adding URLs manually.
And it is especially annoying not to be able to have that continuity in Opera Mini, since it is, after all, touted as being able to deliver a “desktop-like” experience, and yet its bookmark management is, in a word, flat – i.e., you can’t really manage more than a handful of bookmarks on the thing.
Yes, there are workarounds, but they don’t appear to work on the 4.0 beta anymore – and why not be able to do it in an integrated fashion?
I mean, the API is trivial enough, and it would make it a lot easier for people to share links – which brings me to my next point.
4. The anti-social mobile browser
In this age of social networking and “shared everything”, where people can’t seem to go anywhere on the net without an almost irresistible urge to share their shiny new URL with their closest buddies, one of the things that annoy me the most about Opera Mini is that it is an entirely solo experience1.
Whereas using the native phone browsers I can pretty much always get to an URL and/or send it via SMS or MMS to someone else, the only thing I can do in Mini is look at it, and even then I have to jump through a few hoops.
I mean, it isn’t as if it’s impossible to send links as an SMS under J2ME – it can be done, and I really think that, as a minimum, I should be able to reach an URL and have it show up on a standard text field (if I’m lucky, I might be able to cut & paste it using the device’s native mechanisms).
And the same might well apply to images – although there is partial support for downloading selected images, I would also love to be able to save some page thumbnails as images to my handset2.
5. Customizable search engines
Yes, not everybody likes Google search. Opera made it pretty plain that they didn’t when they replaced it with Yahoo search, which is pretty much useless to me in any regard (not only does it not find what I am looking for, it also renders in a way I find hard to negotiate).
I’m positive that Yahoo is trying to improve their mobile search, but I’d like to at least have the freedom to chose a different search engine on my phone – and, right now, that means devoting a home screen bookmark to Google and bypassing the default search field with a few extra clicks.
Again, I know the thing is in beta, so let’s wait for the next beta version and see what Opera does.
2 Most of this also applies to Google Maps for mobile, actually. Whereas in Nokia Maps I can both send current locations to contacts (via SMS, MMS or e-mail, and in both plaintext and LMX format) and save map images to the phone, I have absolutely no way in Google Maps to send a location to people. And it isn’t as if something like geo:38.707566,-9.136441,Praca+do+Comercio is hard to parse (the BlackBerry mapping application lets me send standard HTTP links from one device to the other to share location info, so there’s precedent).