Bitstream's Bolt: Better Browsing on BlackBerry?
(Seybold) Mar 26, 2009
Previously known for fonts and variable data publishing, Boston-based Bitstream has recently made a name for itself as a mobile browser developer. The Bolt browser was introduced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of February. Available as a downloadable beta application since its introduction, it is built upon the technology originally developed for Bitstream's ThunderHawk browser, released in 2007, and sold as an OEM product. That technology originates from one of Bitstream's core missions, which according to CEO Anna Chagnon, is "the rendering of complex pages."
Competitors include the Opera Mobile browser that, according to Bitstream, Bolt outstrips in speed by 25 to 50%. Some say Bolt may also offer some competition to Safari on the iPhone as well.
"No financial services use iPhones," said Mitchell Ross, an analyst at Oppenheimer Funds in New York, as he explained that had Bolt not come on the scene he predicted he would have been the proud owner of a BlackBerry and an iPhone, (although mentioning that perhaps his fianc? might not have gone for that). "But Bolt took care of that. [Bolt] takes advantage of graphics, more like the iPhone does; you can watch videos on it." On a more serious note, Ross also uses Bolt on his BlackBerry to access Bloomberg financial information. "Bloomberg is actually streaming on this; it feels more like a Bloomberg terminal," he said, indicating that the pre-Bolt browser did not offer him that function in as satisfying a way. "The BlackBerry browser almost worked," he said. "But, it kind of shut the whole thing down."
CEO Chagnon can't say when the free downloadable beta period is going to end. "We don't know just yet," she said. "We're working as fast as we can to have some updates in the next release."
She suggested, however, that even when Bolt is officially launched, end users might still be able to download it for free. "We are open to doing OEM relationships," she said. "We have interest from device manufacturers who build mobile phones, including low-end devices." As of March 17 the company had over 300,000 active beta users. (Perhaps that volume of testers, as well as Bitstream's Q4 2008 results bode well for the company in these tough economic times. While the quarter's results were down 10% from the same quarter a year prior, CEO Chagnon said the company is profitable, generating positive cash flow and maintaining no debt.)
Even though Bolt builds on what Bitstream did previously with ThunderHawk, the company wanted the faster, more robust browser to have "a distinct identity from what we were OEMing," according to CEO Chagnon, as well as an independent brand for end users. Thus the Bolt name - and the emphasis on BlackBerry compatibility. "The BlackBerry was the dominating factor [in Bolt's development]. We have a specific BlackBerry build of the browser," she continued. (Other phones can use one of several versions, based on security schemes, signed with third party certificates from VeriSign and Thawte.) By seeking particular input from BlackBerry beta users, Bitstream was able to tailor the BlackBerry version of Bolt to features the company knew the users wanted, such as the device's "back," "top" and "bottom" buttons. One of the biggest requests Bitstream got from the BlackBerry beta users, said Chagnon, was "to see if we could use those buttons and controls in our browser." Other reasons for the BlackBerry-specific version include using a native menu mechanism that BlackBerry users expect, better trackball scrolling and a generally faster, more responsive application.
For non-BlackBerry handsets, Bolt is still a viable option, with a few caveats. Some low-end phones lack the needed video codecs - so video may not play, or may require an external player. Also, the phone must be able to load an application of Bolt's size - currently 155KB.
Sampo Kaasila, vice president of R & D for Bitstream, believed that Bitstream could solve the problem of moving from a widget to a full-blown application in the mobile environment because of Bitstream's unique history. "Basically what we've been doing is making fonts readable on screens, making set-top boxes," he said. "Our fonts are optimized for legibility and optimized to be condensed. That's how we can fit as much content on the screen [as we do] and present [it] in a way that's easily readable." Fonts on Bolt can go as low as 8-point and still be readable. "No other browser fits as much [on the screen] as we do," Kaasila said.
Other features of the browser for all phones include supporting video from video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Yahoo, a "SmartBar Predictive URL Entry," which offers URLs based on history and favorites; and a patented split-screen mode that divides the screen in two: the top section featuring a rectangular magnifier floating over a zoomed-out minimap of a full Web page and the bottom section continuously displaying the magnified content. One click brings the user back to full screen mode.
For beta tester Tapani Ronni, PhD, a geneticist in Boston, reading email on his Nokia smartphone has never been easier. "I use it everyday," he said. "Yahoo mail, The New York Times. What I like about this browser is that it is really fast; it renders graphics faster than the Nokia browser."
Bolt essentially runs on J2ME, the Java Platform, Micro Edition, which provides an environment for applications running on mobile and other embedded devices, such as mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), TV set-top boxes, and printers. Other features Bolt offers are keystroke shortcuts, five levels of magnification, support for RSS feeds, protection against malware and extended battery life. Beta testers Ross and Ronni attested to the easy downloadability of Bolt, its smooth toggling between Web and email and the speed and satisfying graphics of YouTube (and other) videos.
"I like the fact that is has that PC style," said Ross, "and not some dumbed-down version." After all, he continued, "It should be feature-rich if I'm going to whip it out at dinner." TSR