Is Opera Mini the Future of Mobile Browsing?

  HF in Mini  Does Opera Mini represent the future of mobile browsing? I don’t know for sure but I do believe it is the best mobile browser for most users right now. As most of you probably know, Opera Mini, or Mini for short, is a free Java ME application that can run on most current and many older phones. Mini is a small (100KB) application that implements a full html web browser that rivals and in many cases exceeds the performance of the best Smartphone Browsers like Opera’s own Opera Mobile, Access’ NetFront V3.4, Microsoft’s Pocket Internet Explorer (PIE) and Nokia’s new Series 60 V3 Browser.

How is it possible that a 100KB Java application running on the low-end processors of mainstream phones can rival the performance of native code applications running on the fastest mobile processors available? Two words, proxy server. Mini talks to the Internet through a very sophisticated proxy provided by Opera. The proxy does all the heavy lifting – parsing tag soup, re-flowing pages, resizing images and interpreting Javascript. What gets sent to Mini after the proxy has done it’s magic is a compressed binary that requires relatively little processing power to render on the handset. This means that web pages, especially large complex pages with many images, load and render much faster than they would using the phone’s built-in browser. Actually, built-in phone browsers can’t even display pages above a certain size. typically between 30 and 100 KB of combined markup and images. Mini, thanks to the proxy, which splits large pages up into multiple smaller pages, can display virtually any web page regardless of size.
  HF in Mini  The subject of viewing PC web pages on mobile phones is a somewhat controversial one among mobile web proponents and developers. The controversy boils down to whether we should be developing specific web sites optimized for mobile browsers (the “mobile web” camp) or should be striving toward “one web” accessible by any device? I’m a member of the mobile web camp, as least for the time being, because existing mobile browsers don’t provide a pleasant or even in most cases a usable experience when visiting the majority of non-mobile specific web sites. The “one web” proponents argue that with careful standards based web design combined with better mobile browsers it is possible to produce web pages usable on any device. I agree that it is possible, but doing so produces a site that doesn’t fully exploit the strengths of either the mobile or PC browser platform. You wind up with a page that is either unwieldy on the mobile or uninteresting on the PC. I still believe this, but I recognize that the PC Web is currently 100 times as big as the mobile web. There’s a lot of information out there on the “big” web that I’d love to access on my phone but simply can’t because of limitations such as screen size, limited browser image and page size capacity and the unavailability of technologies like Javascript. I do feel that mobile specific sites tend to be the most usable on mobile devices, but also admit that having a capable full web browser on my phone is a very good thing when I want to get at something which can only be found on the PC web. Opera Mini goes a long way toward making the full web usable on phones. The proxy implements some rather intelligent reformatting and re-flowing and resource constraints are reduced or eliminated thanks to the proxy’s compression. For an example of how one might use Mini to browse a full web site, take a look at the first three images which depict Howard Forums (HF) the biggest North American Phone Fan site. HF has a pretty good mobile site but it’s lacking two features of PC site that I miss, search and the tracking of which posts you’ve read – allowing you to go to the first unread post in a thread with one click. The HF home page is 185KB including about 50 images and my phone’s built in browser won’t load it at all. In Opera Mini the HF home page comes up quickly and is usable but requires an excessive amount of scrolling to get to the forum I want – HF has a LOT of forums all in a long list on the front page. Once I enter a forum however I find it very usable and I can search and best of all, threads with unread messages appear in bold and when I click the down pointing arrow icon in front of a post title I’m taken to the first unread post in the thread – a function which requires Javascript, BTW. I’ve bookmarked my favorite forums and now I always use Mini when I visit HF on my phone.

  HF in Mini  But it gets even better, Mini is a better browser even for mobile sites. Many so called “mobile” sites are really designed for the big screens, lots of memory and fast CPUs of Smartphones and PDA’s. Viewing such sites on a feature phone’s browser is frustrating with slow scrolling, temporary freezing while the browser resizes images and frequent out of memory errors. Bloglines Mobile is a good example. I often have more unread, image-heavy items in a feed than the built-in browser can handle. Also, Blogline’s “Save Item to Folder” relies on Javascript so it doesn’t work with most built-in browsers. With Mini, Blogline’s Save works and a feed with 200 unread items loads quickly and smoothly split up into a couple of pages. Good luck actually reading 200 items on a phone, however! In addition, Mini’s User Interface is much better than most mobile browsers’. It makes extensive use of shortcuts (see last image from Mini’s online Help). The ones I use most often are #0 to reload the page, #3 to jump to top, bottom or “content”, #6 to bookmark the current page and #2 to go to my bookmarks. There’s one more shortcut that’s hidden below the “fold” in the screen shot; ## which goes forward in browser history. Mini, by the way makes very intelligent use of history. It stores much more history than any other mobile browser I’ve used, more than a dozen typical WAP2 pages or several full Web pages. Navigation back (via a dedicated soft key on most phones) and forward using ## is also nearly instantaneous. In comparison, my phone’s built-in browser is slow and clumsy. It has no forward or jump to functions and refresh is buried in a sub menu. I find that I end up using Mini for 90% of my browsing.

A major component of the pleasure of using Mini is the excellent support that Opera provides through their User Forum. Opera employees promptly answer user questions and solicit suggestions for future enhancements. When problems are reported with specific phones, Opera often finds a fix in a few days and puts up a new release to solve the issue.

  HF in Mini  A big issue with previous proxy based browsers has been that users are at the mercy of the proxy provider. There have been loads of good browsers that are no longer usable because the company operating the proxy has gone out of business or moved on the other things. Palm.Net, Blazer 2.0 and ProxiWeb were all popular Palm OS browsers until their proxies were shut down. Operating a high volume proxy has considerable costs which need to be recouped by some sort of recurring revenue. Proxy based browsers that required a monthly or annual fee have not been very popular so there needs to be another source of revenue such as licensing or advertising. There is no guarantee that Opera won’t drop Mini someday but at least it’s free so enjoy it while you can. I actually think that Opera and Mini are going to be around for a long time. Opera Mini earns revenue three ways. The Mini Home Page has a number of default bookmarks (some of which can’t be deleted) and a search box with a drop down that allows the choice of several search engines with Google being the default. I’m sure that placement on the Mini home page has a price. Making Google the default search engine of Opera’s PC version is underwriting the cost of making it free. There is an agreement between Opera and Google to make Google the default search engine in Mini as well. Mini’s latest such alliance is with content provider MobilePlay who are paying for placement on browser’s homepage. The second and potentially the most profitable way that Mini makes money for Opera is by licensing the browser and proxy to operators. I think that Opera is giving Mini away to build a huge base of happy users which in turn will help sell Mini and the Mini proxy to handset makers and network operators. The strategy seems to be working. Opera reported back in April that 2 million copies have been downloaded and that Mini is serving 4 million daily page views. T-Mobile Germany is the first provider to bundle Mini (on their Web’n’Walk phones) and has found that it has produced a 119% increase in data ARPU. Finally Opera gets revenue by licensing branded versions of Mini. In one such deal, Ebay Germany is offering an Ebay branded edition of Mini with a default Ebay search and bookmarks to a customized Ebay site that supports mobile bidding and selling. I think Opera and Mini are going to be around for quite a while.

Getting back to the question in the post’s title. I think that Opera Mini is THE browser of the near future. Carrier and content provider alliances will introduce millions of additional users to the pleasures of mobile browsing with a fast browser that can handle almost any web page in a pinch and which shows mobile optimized sites in the best possible light. This in turn will have a major positive effect on the adoption of the web on mobile devices. Eventually, 3G, Moore’s law and breakthroughs in battery technology will give built-in browsers on mainstream phones the power of an Opera Mini and make proxy based browsers unnecessary – but for now Opera Mini is the best mobile browser regardless of price – and it’s free.

10 thoughts on “Is Opera Mini the Future of Mobile Browsing?

  1. I strongly believe that all mobile browsers within a few years will be fully capable of downloading and executining any desktop website simply because most websites are written for the desktop and people like the most universal standards available.

    It is only natural due to the success of opera mini that other mobile browsers will move in this direction in fact they have already started.

    For developers this is infact a dream come true. Thank you opera mini we love you!

  2. Its a very powerful browser for java mobile world I have compared with Palm os Blazer, xiino,web to go and Reqwireless, jbrowser from Jatayu,Minuet (all are proxyless java browser). Opera mini has its own server to decompress the web page which displays fast on mobile screen resolution.
    I hope in future Opera support rtsp streaming, flash and some more java script support inbuilt.

  3. I’m not a tech guy but what I’ve seen so far there might be a major issue concerning Opera Mini and mobile content download sites.

    To get the exactly right content (ringers, pics, apps), content management platforms recognizes the user’s phone from the user agent and other data given by the phone’s browser. With Opera, it’s not currently possible.

  4. Pingback: dotMobi

  5. Pingback: Mobile Enterprise Weblog

  6. Thanks for the comment and compliment, mobilejones.

    Opera Mini doesn’t support RTSP or any other form of streaming media. It’s one of the most requested enhancements on the Opera Mini forum. I think we will see it eventually.


  7. Another great article and review.

    There’s one major omission from Opera mini. It doesn’t support rtsp So, even though I have Mini on my phone and enjoy using for some things, I also must use the Obligo browser supplied with my device when I want to click on a page link to a streaming video or audio file.

    Obviously this is an oversight. I hope the Opera guys fix it soon tho.

Comments are closed.