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Everyone knows it, but few people acknowledge it: Mobile web browsers absolutely suck. Technologists are launching commercial space flights, mapping the human genome, and building flexible computer displays, yet we still haven’t figured out the right way to use a browser on a small device with crap connectivity.
That’s about to change. We’ve seen the next step — and it’s a really awesome, significant step — in mobile browsers, and it was made by none other than Yahoo.
Today, Yahoo launches Axis, a new way of getting around the web, both on mobile and in your typical desktop browser. Axis is available as a standalone web browser on iOS devices now (other platforms such as Windows Phone and Android are coming soon) and as an extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
Yes, the tech press loves to hound Yahoo about its executive troubles and its oldster status, but the fact remains that the company still employs some of the best, brightest engineers I’ve met, and it is very much focused on creating bigger, better mobile products.
To explain Axis, we have to start with search — something that many have assumed Yahoo had given up. “Far from being outside the search game, we’re very much invested in it,” said Ethan Batraski, Yahoo’s director of product management for search, in a meeting with VentureBeat last week.
Bing has lately powering the Yahoo portal’s web search, but this has freed up Yahoo’s intellectual and engineering workforce “to rethink search… as a human experience in three steps,” said Batraski.
Those three steps — the query, the results, and the destination page — have long been locked in a lather-rinse-repeat loop, with users navigating back to a results page when the destination page is lacking, or refining their queries when the results page seems off.
“No matter how much Google or Bing tries to innovate on that experience, it’s pretty much the same way it’s been for the past decade,” said Batraski. And on small-screened phones and tablets with non-optimal wireless connections, that experience is as painful as a first-world technophile could imagine. Axis does something different, bringing queries closer to the objects they represent and bringing more data onto the results page for quicker, simpler, lower-bandwidth decision-making
Here’s how it works: You enter your search term, and Yahoo does some heavy lifting (not Bing-powered). You have the option of selecting a specific object that your query is related to; for example, if you search for “Roots,” Axis might give you options to refine the search for “Roots” the TV miniseries or “The Roots” the band. In that way, it’s quite similar to Google’s newly launched Knowledge Base. It can also direct you to “instant answers,” kind of like what Bing does these days.
That’s when things get really nifty. Axis serves up thumbnails and page previews as results instead of just a list of links, and the results are still available as you navigate through destination pages. Any time you need to get back to the results, you just pull down on the screen, and a horizontal slider of results from your last query appear at the top.
This is one case where a picture is worth a thousand words, so check out the images below (captured on an iPad) to get a better idea of how the mobile browser navigation works:
You can also see demo videos from Yahoo over here.
The main point is, you don’t have to go back and forth over a painfully slow connection to do normal web search; the results are just a finger-flick away at all times, and they’re stored in a convenient, visual slider that won’t hog the already small screen. It’s brilliant and long overdue.
Naturally, the browser also brings the features you’d expect from a modern app: tabbed browsing, gorgeous image search, bookmarks, social sharing options for every page, etc.
In addition to the usual suspects in mobile devices, keep an eye out for Axis on gaming consoles and smart TVs, where search and web browsing are equally painful for similar reasons.
Batraski said he got the idea while on vacation. “I was sitting in Bermuda on a chair with a margarita, and it dawns on me: There’s no real need for a results page. I’ve never been a big fan of it. So by building it into the browser, it’s the most utilitarian way of getting to content.” Six months later, the apps were built.
On feature of particular note is the desktop-to-mobile sync option for open tabs. Firefox for Android and Chrome for Android also have this feature, but until now, it hasn’t been an option for iPhone and iPad users.
That brings us to our next point: It’s absolutely fascinating to see this innovation in mobile browser tech making its debut on iOS. Mozilla has been blocked from putting its Firefox mobile browser on the iPhone and other Apple devices, and we’re pretty sure Google wouldn’t even have bothered to ask, given Apple’s history with outside mobile browsers. But for some reason, this Yahoo browser is the exception to the rule.
“Yahoo has a really good relationship with Apple,” said Batraski. “We power their weather and finance apps.” Batraski also pointed out that, while Axis for iOS uses the Safari web view API, “it’s a complete different browser, and it runs separately from Safari.”
Of course, techies will be quick to pick up and play with the mobile browser and related extensions, but what about the rest of the world?
“Any time you show something this different, it takes users time to adopt,” said Batraski. “Right now, we’re seeing a lot of traction with tech-forward users, where they really understand this makes the experience a lot more efficient.”
As for the less digitally minded masses, he said, “This is not the first time Yahoo has been in the browser business,” referring to the company’s Yahoo-tools-stuffed Firefox and Internet Explorer bundles, which currently claim “well over 100M users.” Axis will be built into Yahoo’s new browser bundles, and the company expects to see mainstream adoption start there.
Of course, any good idea begets other, eerily similar good ideas from competing companies. Batraski said he won’t be surprised to see Google or Microsoft lift the Axis interface and user experience for their own purposes. “I won’t be pissed off; I almost expect it,” he said.
“When they see it, I think they’re going to be really peeved: ‘Why didn’t I think of that’ It’s likely to cannibalize their search experience, and I don’t think they’re ready for that.”
Another interesting note is the browser’s architecture. Yahoo has been churning out some interesting mobile web-focused, Node.js-based tools called Cocktails, and it’s now clear why: The Axis team needed these tools to build the browser and extensions.
“Axis is the first fully Cocktails app we’re going to launch,” said Batraski. “We run off Manhattan as the app server, and then use the Mojito layer for a number of modular applications.”
Top image courtesy of David Hammonds, Shutterstock