Microsoft's Deepfish Offers Mobile Browsing with Zoom

It would appear the future of the mobile desktop is coming closer, quite literally. Just days after announcing it helped attain financing for one of its research projects into zooming mobile user interfaces to be spun off into a separate entity, Microsoft is trumpeting the release to the community of an early build of a zooming Web browser it's calling Deepfish.

The essential technology behind this early build (perhaps it should be called an "alpha") of what could become Microsoft's next browser for Windows Mobile 5 and WM6 is its zooming. Web pages in their native form are illegible on mobile browsers.

But previous attempts at magnification shifting have resulted in near-epilepsy inducing experiences; and Microsoft is already on record as not favoring shifting the burden of making Web pages mobile-friendly onto the shoulders of Web designers. The client software, the company believes, should solve this problem.

As Microsoft describes it, Deepfish lets a user view at least a portion of a Web page in a more normal view by giving her a grey view port - a kind of frame that slides over the full page view - that she uses the joystick to zoom down into a location, and arrow keys to slide over the page. Once zoomed in, the user can continue using the arrow keys to glide left and right, up and down over an area, which she may need to do in order to read wide columns of small text. She can then press and release the joystick button again ("home" on a joystick pad) to zoom back out.

The inaugural Deepfish developer's blog post this morning warns users that this is mainly a technology preview, and not a fully working browser - for instance, there's no JavaScript interpreter, no cookie support, and no security features. This is mainly for users to check out the zooming feature, and whether it's intuitive or functional enough for everyday use.

In a prepared Q&A this morning, Microsoft Live Labs director Dr. Gary William Flake reiterated his company's disapproval for the .MOBI approach to mobile Web browsing - building separate pages or separate functionality that goes against the originally intended design.

"Originally, mobile browsers required content to be specifically tailored to the mobile device, often losing a great deal of the value in today's rich page layouts," Dr. Flake remarked. "It also required developers and designers to do additional work that they were not able to fully justify because of the limited user base of mobile browsers. It was a classic cold-start problem. To combat this limitation, the majority of today's browsers use a single-column format which dynamically reformats existing pages by repositioning the content to fit in the limited screen size. This essentially 'crushes' the page to fit the small screen. This approach, while an improvement in some cases, generally results in a difficult-to-view page that requires excessive scrolling in order to use the portions of the page the person is trying to reach. And when you see the page, it isn't presented in the way the Web designer intended."

As a Live Labs project, Dr. Flake pointed out, there's no formal roadmap for a product rollout, nor is there any specific promise that Deepfish will necessarily become a part of the next browser. Which would be a shame, if only because Microsoft seems to do a much better job at code-naming its test projects ("Avalon," "Escher") than its commercial products ("Windows Presentation Foundation," "Visual Basic for MS-DOS").

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