Skyfire Bets on WebKit for Mobile Browsers

The mobile browser startup Skyfire is joining the increasingly crowded WebKit bandwagon by buying kolbysoft, maker of Steel, a WebKit-based Android  (s goog) browser that appears to have cultivated a tiny but dedicated base of fans who’ve downloaded the app from Android (s goog) Market. Like the popular Opera Mini browser, Skyfire, which currently supports Windows Mobile (s msft) and Nokia (s nok) S60 devices, uses a server to deliver fully rendered web pages. The company hopes to combine WebKit’s ability to “mobilize” basic Internet content with its own cloud-based rendering technology.

“I think, generally and philosophically, WebKit as a movement is doing a really nice job of solving basic HTML-type browsing,” Skyfire CEO Jeff Glueck told me yesterday. “What it isn’t doing well is solving the problem of all the rich media on the Internet that’s in these very fat files — bandwidth-hogging files and proprietary plug-ins like Flash and Quicktime and Silverlight.”

As Om noted in 2008, Skyfire’s cloud-based technology impressively renders web content for mobile consumption and — unlike most mobile browsers — allows it to deliver Flash-based content and other rich media. The company currently relies on ad revenues but carriers are “potential customers,” Glueck said.

It’s difficult to gauge just how much traction Skyfire has gained since its launch in late 2008, but recent figures from StatCounter indicate traffic from its browser fails to match even Sony (s sne) PSP usage. That’s largely due to the fact that the presence of Nokia’s Symbian on the mobile web is waning in Western markets and Windows Mobile traffic borders on nonexistent as Android’s Internet footprint expands — facts that surely helped drive Skyfire’s move toward Google’s platform. Indeed, WebKit technology drives the vast majority of traffic on the mobile web in operating systems such as iPhone and Palm’s (s palm) webOS; RIM (s rimm) is developing a WebKit browser for the BlackBerry.

Of course, Android has a pretty impressive WebKit browser of its own, so Skyfire will face a challenge in convincing uses to download and use a replacement — as Glueck concedes. “Our most essential competition right now is the default browser on the phone,” he said. “So we have to be better than what comes in the box.”

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