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Can the Skyfire mobile browser shake things up a bit?

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I’ve been keeping my eye on this Skyfire news since I read Rafe Needleman’s post about it this morning and most people seem to be pretty excited about the service. According to the company’s website, “Skyfire is a free, downloadable mobile web browser that makes browsing on your phone exactly like browsing on your PC.”

How is this possible? Through the magic of proxy browsing. Everything is churned through Skyfire’s servers first and then streamed to your phone, similar to how Danger handles web pages for Sidekick devices. Except with Skyfire, you can do pretty much anything that your big-boy computer’s web browser can do — most notably, there’s full flash support so sites like YouTube should work just like they do at home. Ajax, too.

It’s a good idea in theory and hopefully Skyfire will be able to crunch down all the pages it needs to once a big clump of beta testers slams the servers with traffic. Ed Hardy over at Brighthand got to play with an early beta of the service and called it “far and away the best web browser for Windows Mobile [he's] ever seen.”

The browser looks and feels similar to the Safari browser on the iPhone and iPod touch, which is a very good thing. Any site you visit appears in its entirety and then you tap and zoom in on the areas you wish to view.

It’s fast, too, according to Hardy.

When I went to YouTube, what I saw was the full site, not a stripped down version.  I selected a video and the page opened, and the video immediately began to play, with full motion and sound.

And all this happened really, really quickly. I went to New York Times site and the home page loaded in less than 4 seconds…

…One of the reasons this browser is so fast and full-featured is it’s server based. When you’re opening a web page with your smartphone, it’s actually being opened on a Skyfire server, which then sends an image of the page to your device.

There are a few bugs here and there but that’s to be expected from a beta service. Apparently long YouTube videos eventually knock the audio and video out of synch and there were some occasional crashes and text entry glitches, but nothing that sounded too awful.

So will Skyfire be successful? If the company can keep the servers from getting bogged down and figure out a way to monetize it, then yes. Rafe Needleman is a bit leery of the money-making strategy (and I agree with him), although he likes the service otherwise.

[Skyfire CEO Nitin] Bhandari may “monetize user activity,” which means selling ads, and he also hopes to generate revenues from carriers that want a competitor to Apple’s iPhone browsing experience. The first revenue model is flawed–in-browser ads on a tiny screen will be annoying and hard to sell. The second model is sound, but incredibly difficult. Many mobile app companies have withered and died while waiting for a good carrier deal. And in this case, the carriers are going to need extra convincing, because supporting Skyfire means running or paying for a bank of proxy servers.

I hate to suggest it because I like free stuff, but if the browser works well enough the company might be wise to charge regular consumers to use it instead of trying to rely on advertising and carrier interest. Whatever the case, it’ll be interesting to see how this takes off. The world needs a good mobile browser.

Welcome to Skyfire! [Company Website] via Crave

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