Browsing the Web on ordinary cell phones will become easier thanks to a new service unveiled by AOL today, in advance of the CTIA cell phone trade show in Las Vegas this week.
AOL's new "better browsing" service reformats complex pages into the simple WAP language understood by cell phones without full Web browsers. AOL's servers shrink down big pictures to a size viewable on small cell-phone screens, simplify tables, and even snap off navigational or advertising sidebars, providing instead a "quick nav" link to open the sidebar as a separate page.
"We can, Web site by Web site, actually make it a better experience," Bergstrom said.
AOL's servers detect the size and color depth of individual phones' screens and alter images to fit. And while the system will try to automatically reformat many pages, the most popular Web sites will get hand-tagged by human AOL editors, he said.
We tested the service with a handful of popular Web sites and got mixed results. News sites such as The New York Times, NewsMax.com, CNN, Salon, and Slate looked terrific, with content neatly stacked in one column down the screen and navigation bars shunted off to separate pages. AOL's service also removed the sidebar full of graphical boxes off boingboing.net's home page and gave us the main content as much more readable text. Pages with frames offered the option to open each frame in a separate WAP page. But we couldn't make the search boxes on citysearch.com or expedia.com work, we couldn't get past the Flash interstitials on Salon, and PCMag.com resolved as an unreadable morass of marketing links.
The service is available now on Sprint phones by going to "Web" from your phone's main menu, then clicking "Portals," "AOL," "Search," and "Surf the Web." AOL is working to get the service on all the major U.S. carriers.
AOL's browser service competes with Opera Mini from Opera (www.opera.com), which uses a similar trick of reformatting pages on a server to get around the limited processing power of many phones. But Opera Mini is a Java application you must download to your phone, where AOL's service works through the phone's existing WAP browser. Opera Mini also doesn't have editors hand-tagging pages, and doesn't snap off sidebars to reduce vertical scrolling.
At CTIA, AOL is also showing its Java city guide and Moviefone applications. The city guide competes with existing products like Handmark Express and Vindigo Mobile; Bergstrom said AOL's strength is in the depth of content and reviews they'll offer, plus GPS connectivity on Sprint phones so you can find the nearest businesses. Carriers are evaluating both the city guide and Moviefone apps for future launches, Bergstrom said.