Lovers of Droid phones and tiny browsers with superfast load times can rejoice. The Opera Mini 5.1 browser for Android phones is out of beta and is now available as a general release.
You can download it in the Android Market, or directly from Opera. If you’ve been testing the previously released beta on your Android phone, you can upgrade to the final release within the app.
The newest version of Opera’s browser adds a pinch-to-zoom feature, but it’s not as elegant as what you’d expect if you’re used to iOS apps. A pinch only zooms you into a specific content well and out to the full page. Still, it’s useful enough to say goodbye to the crude magnifying glass zoom-in-and-out behaviors, which I certainly won’t miss.
The default image quality has also been upgraded to better match the higher-resolution screens of newer phones like the HTC EVO and the Droid X. Opera serves pages to Mini users through a network of web proxy servers, and the data arrives compressed. The method speeds up page loads (especially on slow or flaky data networks), but pages come through looking a little crunchy. This update improves the low-quality image issues.
Opera released its Mini browser for iPhone in April, and it was well-received. It definitely sped up the cellular browsing experience on the iPhone for most websites. But it’s still impossible to make Opera Mini your default browser on the iPhone, and Mobile Safari (with its smooth pinch-to-zoom) has Opera beat for more complex sites and pages that require more navigation than simple scrolling.
Opera Mini for Android can be set as your default browser, and the browser also gets a session restore feature for quick recovery after crashes. There’s also a full-screen mode that does away with the chrome and fills the tiny screen with pure gold web content.
The mobile version of Google’s video-sharing website received an upgrade Thursday. The new m.youtube.com has a bunch of new features, including high-quality video playback in the browser using HTML5.
Surf to YouTube’s mobile site with any modern mobile with a browser that supports HTML5′s <video> tag (works great on iPhones, iPads and Android phones) and you’ll notice that when you click on a video thumbnail, the video loads inside a new browser-based player.
The old site on an iPhone used to launch the YouTube native app, taking you out of the browser. In fact, the first time you visit the site on an iPhone, you’ll be prompted to “install” a bookmark on your home screen. This is likely a step to move people away from the YouTube iPhone app and toward the web-based app.
The switch to an HTML5-based mobile experience comes only a week after YouTube published a public memo stating several places where HTML5 falls short when compared to Flash for delivering video. But Flash currently isn’t an option on mobiles. So, while HTML5-based video playback may not be YouTube’s first choice on the desktop (even though the company has been experimenting with it), it makes perfect sense on mobiles.
The whole mobile YouTube site has been optimized for the small screen, and the experience on the phone is now much tighter. For one, the video quality is markedly better, and the web-app’s interface has been updated to look like a native app, with big, touchscreen-friendly button icons.
There are also new features that aren’t in the YouTube iPhone app. The library is easier to navigate, the search box suggests results as you type, videos can be bookmarked like web pages, and favorites and the new “like”-style ratings have been added.
Google has updated its mobile Gmail interface for iPad users. The company announced the update Monday on the official Google Mobile blog. To see the updated interface, just surf to Gmail using Safari on your iPad.
Gone is the split-screen interface for composing e-mails. Now, you get a tasteful, lightboxed modal overlay — fewer distractions, cleaner and more room for the text of your e-mail. A screenshot is above. The changes will only show up for iPad users, and the new site (for now) is only available to English-language users.
It’s not a major update, but it demonstrates a new way of developing the web app that allows Google to respond more quickly to user feedback. Google switched the product over to a more easily-iterative HTML5 codebase last year. The mobile Gmail site gets updated more frequently — usually just small stuff here and there — and is becoming faster and more usable all the time.
On my own iPhone, I switched from the native Apple mail app to Gmail’s mobile web interface long ago, and I’ve never gone back. I still use the native mail app to send e-mails when I have to (from Twitter or Instapaper, for instance) but for everything else, I use the Gmail web app in Safari. In the early days, it was fairly painful, but it’s gotten much faster and much more usable since Google switched to the current iterative approach. The floating control bar, the swipe-to-archive gesture, the menu navigation and the way threaded conversations expand and contract are elegant, innovative enhancements that all web app developers can learn from.
What do you use for mobile e-mail? Native or web app? Let us know and tell us why you chose that route in the comments.
Sencha Touch, the new mobile-website framework, shows off its multidevice mojo.
Apple’s campaign to make native mobile apps seem sexier than the temperamental world of the mobile browser has been very successful. Tens of thousands of developers have been lured to the company’s App Store as a result.
Since these frameworks deliver content through the browser, there are no bizarre App Store approval processes or installer packages to contend with, and you really can “write once, run anywhere.” Any mobile operating system with a modern browser is game — iOS, Android, WebOS, it doesn’t matter.
Sure, for most games and animation-heavy apps, native is still the way to go. But for all other kinds of content, even complex stuff like maps and videos, the mobile web may be the better choice.
The latest entry into the mobile-framework field is Sencha Touch, brought to you by the same people that created Ext JS, jQTouch and Raphael, all of which have been combined under the name Sencha.
Sencha Touch, released this week, bills itself as “the first HTML5 framework for mobile devices,” which isn’t quite true. Several other mobile frameworks make use of HTML5 APIs like offline storage, or companion APIs like geolocation. But Sencha is nevertheless well worth a look if you’re thinking of building a cross-platform mobile app.
Sencha offers built-in support for the geolocation API and the offline storage API, and takes advantage of CSS 3 for smaller, image-less design elements. Because all the major mobile platforms — iOS, Android and WebOS — use similar WebKit-based browsers, there’s little to worry about when it comes to support for cutting edge features like HTML5 and CSS 3. Even when Firefox arrives on mobiles, you should expect support to be on par.
Sencha has some demos available if you’d like to see what’s possible. The GeoCongress demo makes use of the geolocation API to find out where you are and then show a list of your senators and representative. There’s also a very slick Solitaire demo that shows how to preserve an app’s state using the HTML5 local storage API.
The Sencha Touch code is available under a GPLv3 license. If you’d like to experiment with the code, head over to the new Sencha Touch site and grab a copy.
If Sencha Touch doesn’t cover all your bases, there are several other frameworks out there that do similar things. Although not specifically geared to mobile-web apps, SproutCore can be used to create lightning-fast mobile-web apps.
SproutCore generated quite a bit of interest a few years ago, when Apple incorporated it into the company’s MobileMe tools like iWork.com. It’s also the framework behind Kiva’s Loan Browser tool.
SproutCore is written in Ruby. You can grab a copy from the SproutCore site, or install it as Ruby “gem.”
Another possibility is iWebKit, which offers many of the same features you’ll find in other frameworks, but puts more emphasis on Apple’s mobile devices. Unfortunately, while most iWebKit apps will work just fine in Android, the built-in UI elements are clearly iPhone-specific.
Like the others iWebKit is customizable. You can always dive into the CSS files and tweak things to your liking (though doing so may call in to question the benefit of using a framework in the first place).
Another framework worth noting is Apple’s own PastryKit. Although PastryKit’s UI isn’t cross-platform, it does have some nice tools for iPhone-specific web apps. Keep in mind, though, that PastryKit is not officially documented. Daring Fireball has a nice video overview, and developer David Calhoun has dug a bit deeper into how PastryKit works.
Before you rush off to develop a mobile-web app, it’s worth pointing out that there are definitely some significant advantages to native apps — whether its on iOS or Android. Native apps have access to lower-level system tools (in the iPhone’s case, that means stuff like the accelerometer, gyroscope and more). If your apps need those tools, then by all means, use native code.
If you’re not writing an app that makes heavy use of platform tools, the web is a viable option. And, thanks to frameworks like Sencha Touch, SproutCore and iWebKit, building a cross-platform mobile-web app doesn’t have to be a Herculean task.
From the weekend desk, two items announced late Friday afternoon we’d be remiss if we didn’t tell you about.
First, Google is officially dropping support for IE6. Come March 1st, the company is also going to start phasing out support for other older browsers from Apple, Mozilla and Google itself, but IE6 is the one everyone’s most happy to see gone. The notoriously buggy browser is still supported by some institutions and large organizations. The new minimum browser requirements in Google Apps will be Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.0, Mozilla Firefox 3.0, Google Chrome 4.0 and Safari 3.0.