With Halloween finally out of the way, the blitz to Christmas is on! Around the world, the kiddos are making their wish lists, and parents everywhere are guaranteed to see the iPhone and iPod Touch at the top of many of those lists. Now before I continue and alienate too many of you, allow me to preface this review. I think we can all agree that the Internet is a wonderful, amazing thing. But just as surely as the Internet has positively impacted the face of technology from the way we imagined it back in the days when Marty McFly first stepped on a hoverboard, the Internet has also introduced us to entirely new kinds of danger.
Chances are if you are reading this, you are the web-savvy type. You know to delete those emails from the deposed king of Nigeria, you avoid "free" ringtones and you can just generally police yourself on the web. But here is another angle to consider. When you give a kid or teen (or adult) an iPhone/iPod Touch, you're giving them access to nearly everything on the web...unless the site uses Flash, of course. I know there are iPhone/iPod Touch users out there who love the web, but would prefer to keep it on a leash.
Unfortunately, whether you are a parent or not, if you're looking to avoid some of the crap that's out there on the web, your options have been fairly limited. Sure, you can lock out Safari using the iPhone OS parental controls, but there has to be a medium between allowing unlimited access to the web and cutting it off entirely, doesn't there?
Fortunately, Apple has recently begun to allow apps into the App Store that duplicate Safari's browser functionality. This has enabled (a few) browsers that can also serve as content filters, which brings me to the subject of this review: Mobicip.
Mobicip is a content-filtered browser that looks and behaves very, very close to that of Safari. It requires users to register an email address to create an account, then an administrator (presumably a parent) selects what content level setting is appropriate for the user. Mobicip filters content based on "filtering methods used on K-12 school systems." The account admin selects one of three levels: elementary school, middle school or high school, and Mobicip filters content appropriate to those age levels. Okay, so there is the broad view, but how well does it work?
• Real-time Internet content filtering
• Data encryption for added security over public WiFi
• Simple setup using predefined web filter configurations used in schools
• Easy, intuitive filtering administration
• Support for 3G, EDGE, Home WiFi, Public WiFi (including hotspots that require purchase or agreement)
• Safari-like UI, including pinch and zoom, bookmarks, tabs, landscape view, etc
• Operates with no load on the device and no noticeable delay.
There are two major content-filtered browsers on the app store. I was already familiar with SafeEyes, which is a $20 app that, judging by the App Store reviews, many users simply hate. My brother has used SafeEyes for over a year and when I asked him about it, he said that it's so clunky, slow and generally useless, he just uses his laptop for internet surfing. Ouch. So even though I had high hopes for Mobicip, I was primed for disappointment based on what I already knew of SafeEyes. How did it perform? Let's find out.
Let's start with the price. Mobicip is a mere $4.99, which means that it is four times less expensive than its major competitor, SafeEyes, which weighs in at $19.99. That is a huge plus for Mobicip right from the start, but how well does it actually work?
After downloading Mobicip, the app immediately walks you through creating a Mobicip account and setting filtering settings at one of the three levels previously mentioned. Ideally, the setup should be done by whoever will administrate the account so that the account will not be editable by the user (duh). Once an account is created and filtering settings are ready, you're set to surf.
Mobicip's UI is very clean and simple...just like Safari. In fact, at first glance, no one would know the difference between the two. The only apparent difference is the inclusion of an info icon in the lower right corner of the browser that gives the user access to Settings and Help menus. The Settings menu really only gives the option to clear the browser's history and cookies. The real account settings are made by the administrator at mobicip.com, which also has a very simple and easy to use website. The account administrator need not be an expert to set up and edit the account, so if you are intimidated by the idea, rest easy.
In using Mobicip, I was very impressed with how quickly pages loaded. Navigating tabs and setting/using bookmarks is nearly identical to Safari and as I have used Mobicip, it's been easy to forget I am not actually using Safari. That is, until you hit a site that contains inappropriate content, at which point you get to talk to the proverbial hand. It's great that Mobicip blocks websites that contain content with obviously questionable content. It does a really great job at this, but does it block inappropriate content on other websites like Google, for example?
The answer depends on a few things. First, depending on the chosen level of filtering, Mobicip allows certain items that could
be considered inappropriate. For example, in the high school setting, medical/anatomical search terms are allowed, so Google would yield results for names of body parts and resulting image searches would be akin to what you may find in a text book or encyclopedia. Nudity? Yes, but not the kind that would appeal to anyone but your doctor. And if that's still too much for you, just crank the filtering up to Middle School or Elementary School level.
Mobicip also offers a $9.99/year premium subscription service for administrators who would prefer to control the exact types of content their users are able to see. From any browser, the premium service includes the ability to blacklist and whitelist specific websites or categories as well as manage multiple users and devices on the account. The premium service also allows administrators to view detailed reports of internet activity, including the website visited, if the site was blocked and the reason it was blocked. I was very impressed with the premium service and for a mere $10/year, I think it serves as a great level of additional control for those parents/admins who feel it might be necessary.
So what's not to like about Mobicip? Well, if you are a teen and it's been installed on your device involuntarily, probably a lot. But from an objective point of view, Mobicip is a rock solid content-filtered browser that only suffers from the hang ups common to third party browsers on the iPhone/iPod Touch.
Since Apple won't allow users to set a third party browser as the default browser, clicking links in Mail or other programs won't open in Mobicip. In fact, if Mobicip is installed properly, then that means Safari is disabled using the iPhone's native parental controls and installing 17+ rated apps from the App Store is restricted (to prevent the installation of other third-party browsers). So web links in other apps won't open at all...they just stare at you blankly when you tap on them. Of course, this is not Mobicip's fault, and with the advent of cut/copy/paste on the iPhone, this is less of a problem than it was prior to OS 3.0. Besides, the extra step is worth the security Mobicip provides.
The only other item users may possibly complain about is that when you start up Mobicip, it displays a splash screen and logs into your Mobicip account. But even this process takes less than 2 seconds to complete, so I hesitate to even mention it. Since it is a difference from Safari, I'm pointing it out in the spirit of full disclosure, but I have certainly not found it to be a major distraction.
I sought out reviewing this app because I know a lot of people in my social circles who love the concept of the iPhone and iPod Touch, but who are understandably nervous about putting these devices in the hands of their kids...or husbands, for that matter. Yeah, I think adults will benefit as much from Mobicip as any child would. Content filtering is not just for the kiddies.
Now, I totally understand that many users wouldn't dare use an app like this because the concept of content filtering doesn't appeal to them. But for those whom the concept does appeal to, Mobicip is a lifesaver, and for a paltry $5, it's an absolute must-have. And for what it's worth, it has completely replaced Safari on my iPhone.
If you have any questions I didn't cover here, leave a comment. And if you have an opinion regarding content filtering or if you have used any content filtering apps, let's hear from you, too!