An Opera on Your Mobile
By Peggy Anne Salz, Tue Dec 03 14:45:00 GMT 2002

Microsoft may be the hands-down winner over Netscape in the PC space, but the cellphone market is a whole new ballgame.


Ever wonder why surfing on the mobile Internet is such a pain? Jon von Tetzchner, CEO and co-founder of Opera Software ASA, an independent technology company based in Norway, is pretty certain he knows the answer. “It’s WAP,” he says flatly. “It’s a fairly bad technology, and one I’ve thought was a bad idea from the start.”

While a whopping 70 percent of cellphones sold worldwide this year can surf the Web through WAP browsers, almost no one actually does because the experience is so miserable. “Users wanted the pure, undiluted HTML Web on their phones. And what did they get?” he asks. “A watered-down version of the Web that is clumsy to navigate.”

WAP, von Tetzchner argues, is a “dead-end” technology. And now Opera is trying to get the mobile industry back on track. When the company revealed in October that it had cracked the screen size problem that made it impossible to duplicate the full-size fixed Internet experience on a mobile device, observers were enthusiastic. “Finally, you have the full HTML experience instead of WAP, and it’s a pretty big deal to have created that,” notes Michael Gartenberg, Research Director, Client Access and Technologies, at Jupiter Research in the US. “It’s a phenomenal technology.”

Put simply, the new Opera 7 browser automatically reshuffles a page to stack it vertically so it fits on the screen of the mobile device and can be read by scrolling down only. It relies on a breakthrough technology Opera calls Small Screen Rendering, a system that can take web pages designed for PC screens and squeeze them into a mobile handset. To do this, the technology “looks” at the pages a user requests and then strips them down to the essential parts. Decorative images that are not essential navigational images are reduced or eliminated.

Content or Context?

While analysts are generally impressed by Opera’s technology, some are a little worried about the logical leap it has to take to second-guess the user. “Content on a PC screen is full of boxes, menus, logos and images. There is basically no guarantee that the browser can pick the essentials, arrange them on the screen properly and not get something scrambled in the process,” observes Jessica Figueras, a senior analyst with Ovum in the UK.

And even if the browser can figure this out 100 percent of the time, it still only succeeds in delivering an overload of information to the user. After all, the industry’s goal is not necessarily to have one web page for all devices; the focus is and remains on delivering the right content to the right devices.

No matter its shortcomings, Opera’s approach is one better than most alternatives on the market today. Unlike WAP, Opera's browser performs all rendering on the client itself, thus eliminating the need for expensive and complicated server solutions residing with the mobile operators. However, there is a catch. The browser has to download an entire web page before rendering it – an exercise that works best in a high-speed GPRS network.

More important, Opera doesn’t require web developers to re-code their pages in another mark-up language, as was the case with WAP. This means potential costs savings for site operators and a wealth of content for wireless users, says Thomas Brady, a member of the Geek.com community and contributor to the site. “Some will certainly save money on developing pages,” Brady says. But don’t expect it to be a no-brainer. “Most sites aren’t just simple HTML; they include a lot of Java and other dynamic languages,” he says. “Text will be tough, but images will be the real challenge.”

In short, Opera is good news for developers who want to support it, but doesn’t entirely relieve developers of the burden and the cost of creating content for different devices, screen sizes and modes of use.

Too Close to Call

Opera, which has already made its name providing a fast, elegant browser for PCs, likes to play the part of “David” fighting rivals such as Microsoft. Over the last 18 months Opera claims to have lured some 12 million customers away from Microsoft’s Explorer. Onestat.com, a leading provider of real-time website analysis software based in Amsterdam, estimates that Opera has a 0.9% share of the overall Internet browser market, taking third place after Microsoft and Netscape, which counts for only 3% of the market. In comparison, the market shares of mobile browsers are currently too small for Onestat.com to call a winner.

“We see an increasing usage of mobile browsers, but this accounts for less than 1% of total browser usage,” the company commented. What’s more, many observers suggest the browser wars won’t produce a clear winner anyway. Unlike browsing on a PC, surfing the wireless Web is an exercise that ultimately concerns device makers, portal providers, mobile operators and end-users. They’ll want choice and they’ll demand variety.

Indeed, if Michael von Roeder, manager of Accenture’s Communications & High tech Wireless Industry practice in Frankfurt, is correct, then browser providers, no matter their competitive prowess, may sadly be fighting a losing battle. Von Roeder, who currently works on behalf of a major European mobile operator, notes operators are lining up to implement specialized portals and piggy-back on the success of services such as Vodafone Live!

“They want to tailor the content directly to the handsets, and the browser is a third strong brand on the phone,” von Roeder says. “This is not what operators want because they are even trying to squeeze the handset manufacturer out of the picture so that they (operators) are the strongest brand and the face to the customer.”

Granted the battle on the desktop is pretty much Internet history, but the wireless browser war is only about to begin. And this time it’s a level playing field where technology will most likely be judged on its merits and not marketing. That being the case, Opera is suddenly in the spotlight.

While Jupiter Research’s Gartenberg won’t say it’s a “slam-dunk” for Opera, he’s taking bets that Opera, with the support of the leading phone manufacturers consortium Symbian, will give other companies, including Palm, Blackberry, and Danger a run for their money. Opera is Symbian’s “preferred”, although not exclusive, web browser. It is also the default browser on Sharp's line of Zaurus PDAs.

The Personal Touch

But support is one thing, product is another. While Tetzchner is confident Opera 7 will “show up on handsets in Q1,” he is reluctant to name names just yet. Meanwhile, Microsoft has released its first “Windows powered” phone, the SPV, which is being sold by Orange in the UK. The phone is meant to compete with similar smart phones being released by all major handset manufacturers. Microsoft is smug about its chances to snare a huge share of the market during the next few years; it remains convinced that users will welcome the familiar look and feel of Windows on a mobile device.

Opera and Symbian believe exactly the opposite, and has recently won Symbian a few significant battles in the marketplace. They’re convinced that operators and vendors will want to provide users with a unique, personalized experience – and will demand to brand it as well. “In our view there’s an ecosystem of competition around our operating system,” says Peter Bancroft, Symbian VP, Communications. “The aim is not to compete with our suppliers, but rather to get them the best technology.” For this reason, Bancroft says, Symbian allows companies to “tweak” any bit of the source code in order to make smart phones that are compatible across vendors yet offer a unique look and feel.

In November, for example, Sendo, a British handset manufacturer that was one of the first to sign on with Microsoft, shocked the marketplace with its sudden decision to pull out of the Microsoft camp and start working on a smart phone using software from Nokia and Symbian. This week’s announcement that Symbian now has a total of twenty devices based on its operating system in development, and five new partners including ARM, HP, Motorola SPS, RealNetworks, and Texas Instruments, demonstrates a clear and growing momentum for Symbian, and a positive outlook for allies like Opera.

The Big Picture

While some may argue Opera’s new browser technology still has a few bugs, the company is nonetheless at least grappling with the usability problems so many other browser companies have chosen to ignore. With the screen-size problem solved, von Tetzchner revealed Opera is gearing up to tackle speech. Opera and IBM are together working on an open standard for multimodal voice browsing in competition with Microsoft’s proprietary SALT solution. The companies’ proposed X+V mark-up language leverages existing standards, so developers won’t have to build new voice applications from the ground up.

Thanks to its efforts, Opera’s vision of the all-HTML Internet is ever closer to becoming reality. Moreover, its ability to offer users full access to the whole Web also opens up a slew of entirely new revenue possibilities for all players in the wireless industry. One can even imagine new business models springing up where operators could charge a monthly fee for full HTML access.

Opera’s choice in partners and close ties to Symbian will most certainly insure that its innovative browser technology doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. What’s more, Symbian’s deep commitment to personalization may well score points with cautious operators who will demand flexibility and a browser provider that doesn’t want top billing. Opera is a small company with modest demands – and this underdog status may be the best weapon in its arsenal.

Even if Opera's browser doesn’t make the major leagues, the attention it is getting proves users are ripe for a better browser and a more user-friendly wireless Internet. Other companies are advised to follow Opera’s lead and start paying more attention to crucial usability issues. Otherwise disgruntled users are very likely to vote with their feet - and in this browser war every vote counts.



Peggy Anne Salz is a freelance author who likes to go beyond the day-to-day developments in the mobile space to grapple with the toughest issue: where the industry is going.Her work has appeared in a number of publications including Time, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal Europe, as well as Communications Week International, where she is one of the editors.