Hitting 1 Billion Page Views, Opera Mini Targets iPhone - InformationWeek

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Hitting 1 Billion Page Views, Opera Mini Targets iPhone

Unlike Opera Mobile, which runs on smartphones with full operating systems, Opera Mini is specifically designed to operate on the vast majority of conventional cell phones.

Driving the mobile Web experience onto mid- and low-end cell phones, Opera Software is expected to announce this week that its Opera Mini Web browser has hit the 1 billion monthly page views milestone. Opera Mini is designed to automatically reformat conventional Web pages for display on any Java-enabled mobile device.

With its improved usability and rapid downloads, Opera Mini 4.0 (recently released in beta version) is being explicitly touted as a free alternative to the rich Internet capability of the costly iPhone from Apple.

The Norwegian browser developer has also launched a push into the U.S. market, said Tatsuki Tomita, Opera's senior VP of consumer products, who recently relocated to Mountain View, Calif. from Tokyo. Unlike its sister production Opera Mobile, which runs on smartphones with full operating systems, Opera Mini is specifically designed to operate on the vast majority of conventional cell phones.

"Because mass-market handsets are so much smaller compared to smartphones, they have much less memory, making it difficult to render Web sites and to download all the contents necessary for true HTML," said Tomita. "So for anybody to go out there and surf the Web on their [mass market] feature phone is a no-brainer concept but it wasn't possible until quite recently, with the advent of Opera Mini."

Opera was founded in 1994 to develop a rival to the then-dominant Netscape browser for desktop computers, but the company's focus has shifted to mobile devices with the Mobile and Mini versions of its browser. Debuting in early 2006, Opera Mini is a piece of client software that connects to an Opera server via a conventional cellular connection. The server compresses and reformats the data from a Web site and sends it back to the Opera Mini client for display on the mobile device. Users can download Opera Mini from the Web for use with any Java-enabled phone.

The runaway popularity of the iPhone, which has a full Safari browser pre-installed, has upped the ante for mobile device vendors and for software providers seeking to provide a "full" Web experience as opposed to the limited surfing allowed through previous WAP browsers. Nokia, which has produced millions of phones using Opera Mobile, has developed its own mobile browser known as "Konqueror," which is based on the open-source WebCore and JavaScriptCore components that Apple uses in its Safari browser. Windows Mobile phones now come with the mobile version of Internet Explorer, while Access Technology, the Japanese company that owns the rights to the Palm operating system for Treo smartphones, produces the NetFront browser which comes installed on many Symbian OS devices, particularly in East Asia.

Opera Mini is unique in providing something like a full Web-browsing experience on mass-market cell phones. That low-end niche, however, may prove constricting as consumers in the U.S. migrate toward what are now considered smartphones, and as iPhones along with "smart" devices running on Windows Mobile and the Symbian OS (the dominant mobile operating system outside the U.S.) take up a bigger chunk of the handset market.

"I think they've done a phenomenal job of trying to position themselves as a mobile browser provider," said Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO of alternative wireless service provider Funambol. "The issue is that the lower you go, the less people are likely to use a browser at all -- they primarily use their cell phones as communications devices."

The U.S. market hit the 80-percent saturation point at the end of the second quarter, points out Jerry Panagrossi, Symbian's VP of U.S. operations. That means that both handset manufacturers and wireless carriers will shift toward more sophisticated devices and more powerful data services.

"Historically as we've seen in the mobile market, today's high-end phone is tomorrow's low end," remarks Panagrossi.

That leaves Opera Mini with a niche in low-end phones -- but one that is still rapidly growing, argues Opera's Tomita.

"If you look at certain markets like Japan, you could argue that Opera Mini is becoming obsolete because most of the handsets being shipped are comparable to what we would call a smartphone," Tomita explains. "But a lot of the growth is coming from China, India, and Russia, where still the majority of handsets are not going to be powerful enough to run a full web browser. Opera Mini will remain the solution in those markets.

"Even for developed markets like the U.S. we'll see continued strong demand for an Opera Mini-type solution, because it runs on Java."

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