By Harry McCracken | Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 9:00 am
At some point in the second half of this year–assuming it isn’t delayed–Adobe is going to ship Flash Player 10.1 for Android phones, thereby unlocking gazillions of hours of Flash video on the Web for owners of Android handsets. Mobile browser company Skyfire intends to beat it to the punch. It’s released a beta of Skyfire 2.0 for Android, a free, ad-supported browser that can play Flash video–although not all of it by a long shot–on handsets running Android 1.5 and above.
Like Opera Mini, earlier versions of Skyfire for Windows Mobile and Symbian were proxy browsers that compressed Web pages on the server side before transferring them to the phone. With this Android edition, the Skyfire folks are shifting strategy. Android’s Webkit-based rendering engine is already capable of displaying Web pages swiftly and accurately, they figure, so they’re not trying to duplicate it. Skyfire for Android uses the same Webkit rendering that Android’s default browser does–but rolls it into a browser with a bunch more features.
The most notable of these new capabilities is Flash video playback. For that, Skyfire still uses a proxy approach: When you come to pages with Flash videos, it identifies them, compresses them, and converts them to H.264 and HTML5, then transfers them to your phone for playback. In other words, it’s getting around Android’s current lack of Flash support by turning Flash video into something that Android can support. (Other Flash content, such as games and irritating welcome user interfaces on restaurant sites, aren’t supported.)
In my tests with a prerelease version of Skyfire 2.0 supplied to me by the company, this worked wonderfully well when it worked at all. When Skyfire notices videos it can play, it pops up a notice in its “SkyBar” icon bar. Click on it, and it does the conversion (which takes from a few seconds to around a minute) and playback. Over Wi-Fi, videos played in full-screen mode and looked terrific; over 3G, they didn’t look quite as good, but were still respectable. I watched videos at YouTube (which Android does support natively), DailyMotion, Metacafe, Vimeo, ABC.com, CBS.com, Revision3, PCWorld.com, and other sites this way, including ones embedded in blogs.
Skyfire says it supports “millions” of videos–but in my tests with this version, there were scads that didn’t work, including all the ones at NYTimes.com, CNN.com, Gizmodo, and other sites, and some of the ones at other sites. (I had trouble with longer ABC.com videos, for example, and one blog had one embedded Vimeo video that worked and another that didn’t.) Sometimes Skyfire didn’t seem to notice the videos were there at all; sometimes it saw them, but the conversion failed. In either case, I only discovered that there were problems when I tried and failed, which was annoying.
Oh, and Hulu doesn’t work–not because there are technical issues, but because Hulu blocks Skyfire, along with everything else that isn’t a desktop browser. Sigh.
Skyfire says that it’s working to add support for more sites, and the browser has a feature you can use to notify it of stuff that’s not behaving properly. With any luck, it’ll get the feature to the point where attempting to check out video feels less like a crapshoot than it does now.
Even with spotty video support, Skyfire beats Android’s default browser on multiple fronts in terms of sheer features. It lets you view any site in Desktop, Android, or iPhone mode–extremely handy for sites that deliver different variants to different browsers, but not always the version you want. An Explore option lets you browse videos, tweets, and other items relating to terms on the page you’re on. There are also more prominent features for sharing pages via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail or text message than in the default browser. You can choose to have it clear the cache when you exit, allowing for a primitive form of private browsing. And pinch-to-zoom is supported, at least on my Droid.
I found rough spots in some of these areas, too–for instance, the viewer that lets you jump between multiple pages seemed to have problems rendering thumbnail images. And the browser sometimes got bogged down and unresponsive. Overall, though, Skyfire is rife with promise–if the company can polish it up and get it to support more videos, it has a shot at being Android’s best browser, even in a race that now includes the default browser, Opera Mini, and Firefox, among others.
Will Skyfire remain distinctive once Adobe’s official Flash Player hits Android? Maybe–a Skyfire executive told me that the Adobe player doesn’t do the server-side compression and optimization that Skyfire performs before sending video to the phone. I worried a bit about Skyfire’s approach scaling if the browser becomes popular on Android, but the executive told me that the company is already delivering 25 million minutes of video a month to users of its other versions.
Oh, and one other thing: Yes, Skyfire is working on an iPhone version. It’s similar to the Android one–it uses the iPhone’s Webkit rendering engine, for instance–and the company intends to submit it to Apple in the second quarter of this year. Does it stand a chance of being accepted, and thereby giving iPhone owners the Flash video support that Adobe isn’t permitted to deliver? I’m placing no bets–but keep your fingers crossed. We know that Steve Jobs hates Flash but loves HTML5, so there’s at least a tiny chance he’d be pleased by a Skyfire that ran well on an iPhone.
Some images of Skyfire for Android in action (or, in the last example, not in action):