With SkyFire for iPhone Still Awaiting App Store Approval, We Go Hands-On

As soon as we heard that the SkyFire browser was coming to the iPhone, we just knew it was going to sit in the approval queue for a while. With Apple/Adobe’s infamous squabbling, anything that claimed to support Flash — even through some server-side conversions, as with SkyFire — was going to be subject to some major scrutiny.

1 month, 20 days, and 2 hours later, our buddies at SkyFire Labs say that they think they’re getting pretty close to approval. With that in mind, they’ve sent over the latest pre-release build of the browser, and I’ve been dabbling with it for the past 12 hours or so. So, what’s it like to use the first Flash-video friendly browser on iOS?

So, does it work?

Yes. Mostly. Sort of. You see, SkyFire enables Flash video playback by way of conversion. That is, it’s not playing back Flash — it’s scanning a page for Flash videos, then converting those videos into a format compatible with the new HTML5 video standard. You load the page with the video you want to watch, poke at a button on the status bar, and then tap the thumbnail representing the video you want to watch.

As a result of this conversion, not all Flash-enabled video sites will work. Wonky pre-roll advertisements, odd placement of the video itself.. plenty of stuff can junk up the workings. SkyFire’s going through and enabling support for all the sites they can find, though, so your favorite sites should be good to go. Sites can opt out of playback support — alas, Hulu has chosen to do so, so for those hoping to use this to get around paying for Hulu Plus: Sad Trombone.

How’s the video playback/quality?

It’s… spotty. This is the first semi-public build of a product that SkyFire wasn’t even entirely sure was going to be approved, so I’m not going to harp on it too hard. I watched about an hour’s worth of South Park and The Daily Show (through South Park Studios and TheDailyShow.com), and had a few hang-ups along the way. One episode of South Park got stuck on a 5 second loop. Another kept dropping in and out of a sound-only “low bandwidth” mode, though my pretty-dang-quick Internet connection seemed to be cranking away at full speed the whole time. The actual visual quality of the video will vary based on your internet connection, but all of the stuff I saw — even over 3G — was totally watchable.


Nope. Video only.

What rendering engine is this built on?

As far as I can tell (and as far as SkyFire has told me), this is all built on top of WebKit. This is opposed to Opera Mini, for which Opera ported over an engine of their own. As a result of working right on top of iOS’ build of WebKit, SkyFire will render most things (pages, text, etc) identically to Mobile Safari.

Related Content:

When you load a page, SkyFire will start scanning it for terms it can use to show you related content in the form of videos, “trends”, tweets, and images. Tap the pair of squiggly lines down on the bottom right, and it’ll bring up the terms it’s found, along with offering up a way for you to enter your own. The auto-scanning isn’t… always successful. On the TechCrunch frontpage, it’s suggesting a search for “million Digg company”. On Reddit, it wants me to search for “null hash vote”.

On MobileCrunch, however, it suggest “T-Mobile” and “Microsoft” — both of which are totally reasonable options. The content it suggests seems somewhat random (You searched for Microsoft! Here’s a video on how to make accent marks in Excel!), but it could be a good way to kill time on a boring bus ride.

Things We Like:

  • Flash Video does indeed work, though it has its issues
  • You can decide to load pages in Desktop or Mobile format with just two clicks.
  • Private browsing mode, which disables history/cookies. Skyfire seems to be fully aware that much of the Flash content that people might be wanting on the iPhone is of the adult variety.
  • The search box gives you three options for results: Google, Google Video, or Wikipedia. Certainly should save you a few clicks.
  • One click access to a pop-up view of your Facebook wall. It seems sort of out of place at first, but it’s kind of a neat trick.
  • As you can’t choose any browser besides Safari to load URLs you click in another application, SkyFire will automatically scan your copy-and-paste clipboard for URLs upon launch. Your friend send you a link you want to open in Skyfire? Hold it, copy it, launch Skyfire. It’ll ask you if you want to start at that page, or on your default homepage.

Things We Don’t Like:

  • Unlike Mobile Safari, you can’t jump to the top of the screen (anywhere near the status bar) to jump back to the top of the page. After 3 years of doing this on my iPhone, it has become second nature. Its absence is frustrating. Update: It looks like you can do this, but you have to tap a reaaaally small section of the address bar that stays behind as you scroll down the page.
  • The user interface is… a bit messy. SkyFire had a lot of stuff to cram in on top of all the buttons people were accustomed to with Safari, so it’s understandable — but man, I hope there’s some UI designer out there who can clean things up a bit.
  • Most things are still a bit buggy.

By all means, download SkyFire when it comes out. Check to see if your favorite sites work. Watch the heck out of a ton of videos that you couldn’t ever watch before. It is free, after all. I imagine that most will want to stick with Safari as their primary browser for now, mainly using SkyFire for the places where Safari falls short. If SkyFire could clean up its looks a bit and knock out some of the lingering bugs, however, they’d have a real winner here.