dw2

8 September 2008

Mobile web browsing wide open

Filed under: browsers, Opera, Webkit — David Wood @ 8:59 pm

While the blogosphere has, understandably, been paying a lot of interest to one new web browser – Chrome, from Google – I’ve unexpectedly found myself paying a lot of attention to a different web browser: Opera Mini.

Opera Mobile was, for several years, my mobile web browser of choice. Whichever smartphone was in my pocket – eg Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia… – I would download the latest Opera Mobile, and make heavy use of it.

This changed when Nokia started shipping the Webkit browser on their S60 3rd edition phones. Although I kept, for a while, both Opera Mobile and Webkit installed, I found myself using the Webkit browser more and more. The attraction was that, with its intelligent scrolling and “complete page” view, it served up web pages in very similar fashion to how they appeared on desktop browsers. It has been described as “bringing real PC web-browsing to the smartphone”.

However, I confess that I’ve been having occasional problems with the Webkit browser on my Nokia E61i. Pages often take quite a long time to load – and then re-load, with more text, once the stylesheet has been downloaded – but with an awkward gap in between, when the screen is blank. Worse, the S60 Webkit browser crashes rather too often for my liking – sometimes (causing real frustration) at the end of a lengthy process while I’ve been navigating to a page I particularly want to view. Whilst it’s a great piece of software, it’s not perfect.

Last week, I decided it was time to update the device software on my E61i. Using the Nokia Software Updater (as prompted by the Nokia PC Suite), I moved up from ROM version 1.0633 to 2.0633. The process went smoothly. At the same time, I cleaned out lots of add-on software that I no longer used. So my E61i was looking fresh and new. Alas, after the upgrade, the Webkit browser software let me down again – with an Odeon cinema webpage disappearing just as I was about to check possible film times for later that week.

My son – who at the age of 17 going on 27 is already a smartphone veteran – took the opportunity to offer me some of his well-honed teenage wisdom: he told me I should switch to Opera Mini. That’s Opera Mini, not Opera Mobile – it’s a free app that is funded (like Firefox) from a share of advertising revenues via links with Google.

It wasn’t the first time my son had given me that advice. I’d been resisting it, because:

  • The “Mini” in the name made it sound to me like the application was underpowered
  • I knew it was written in Java, and I thought its performance would, therefore, be less than that of an app written in C++.

However, I noticed a lot of praise in internal Symbian discussion databases for Opera Mini, so I decided to take the plunge. Downloading and installing the app was simplicity itself: I googled “Opera mini”, and the very first site offered a download link. The download was surprisingly quick – reflecting the fact that the app itself is quite small. Although there was a slight delay when the app started running, the subsequently performance was pleasantly fast. I can well believe the claim in Wikipedia that, with Opera Mini, data transfer is “about two to three times faster“.

The next surprise was how well the browser coped with sites that, previously, required me to wait until “the re-load after the initial load”, before displaying text in (for example) right-hand columns on the screen. For example,

  • Recently the BBC news page changed over to this kind of layout scheme
  • Similarly an upgrade to the Atlassian Confluence engine used for various wikis at Symbian also changed over to this kind of layout scheme.

With a fast connection and a strong CPU on a desktop, web pages like those above load quickly enough. But on my E61i, I had been used to having to wait quite a while, before text in right hand columns on the screen finally became visible. However, because Opera Mini uses a very different mechanism (assembling the page server-side, before compressing it and sending it down to the client), this text is now available to me much more quickly. That’s an unexpected bonus.

And I keep finding other UI features and application functionality in Opera Mini that, likewise, pleasantly surprise me – such as an optimised interface to search on Wikipedia or on Amazon.

After a couple of days, I did the previously unthinkable, and re-assigned one of the E61i application hot keys, away from Webkit, to Opera Mini. And I still haven’t looked back.

The morale of this story, for me, is that the mobile web browsing competition is still wide open. It’s another reminder of one of the central characteristics of an open platform: an application which looks like being the #1 in its field at any given time, might be overtaken in the future – provided the underlying platform serves up a level playing field. And the real winner of this kind of open competition is the end user. In order to remain #1, an application has to keep on providing quality innovations – quickly!

Of course, there’s not just Opera and Webkit in the mobile web-browser space. There’s also Netfront and Skyfire, among many others, and we can expect mobile versions of Chrome and Mozilla to make entrances too at some stage.

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9 Comments »

  1. Odeon cinemas have a long history of having browser-unfriendly pages and an aggressive attitude about it. See http://www.dracos.co.uk/odeon/ for a very good initiative that had to be stopped.

    To check movies and cinemas in London, whatever the browser, check out http://www.londonnet.co.uk/films/ and http://www.londonnet.co.uk/cinema/.

    br -d

    Comment by David Mery — 9 September 2008 @ 1:12 pm

  2. Odeon cinemas have a long history of having browser-unfriendly pages and an aggressive attitude about it. See http://www.dracos.co.uk/odeon/ for a very good initiative that had to be stopped.

    To check movies and cinemas in London, whatever the browser, check out http://www.londonnet.co.uk/films/ and http://www.londonnet.co.uk/cinema/.

    br -d

    Comment by David Mery — 9 September 2008 @ 1:12 pm

  3. I guess most people would not consider Opera Mini because of the “mini” in the name. There have been some great reviews of mini recently and I’m surprised that a browser named mini could deliver a better experience than the desktop-class browsers. Guess Opera should rebrand it.

    Comment by sachendra — 10 September 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  4. I guess most people would not consider Opera Mini because of the “mini” in the name. There have been some great reviews of mini recently and I’m surprised that a browser named mini could deliver a better experience than the desktop-class browsers. Guess Opera should rebrand it.

    Comment by sachendra — 10 September 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  5. Web RunTime(WRT) is closely related to the Webkit browser and, hopefully, it’s full incarnation will probably improve its acceptance by an order of magnitude. But it’s strange that previous public announcements haven’t materialized in anything, in particular the following one: “On April 23rd 2008, S60 enhanced its web Run-Time capabilities by integrating with Platform Services. Platform Services allow widgets to access S60’s numerous applications and services securely, including the calendar, contacts, messaging, audio, video, images, GPS, and camera, via JavaScript APIs.” (http://www.s60.com/life/thisiss60/s60indetail/technologiesandfeatures/webruntime) IMHO, that claimed functionality will be very useful to developers, but unfortunately Nokia has not delivered it yet. I can think of a number of speculative causes:
    – Symbian Foundation postponed the WRT 2.0 release
    – Operators have rejected the whole concept of WRT
    – Nokia is waiting to the Tube phone
    – Within the Symbian/S60 development teams, they don’t back a very powerful WRT (a fully functional WRT 2.0 could half the number of programs already available to S60)

    You understand the significance of mobile web browsing so, what is happening within Symbian/Nokia? What previous cause is the more correct one.

    Comment by Anonymous — 12 September 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  6. Web RunTime(WRT) is closely related to the Webkit browser and, hopefully, it’s full incarnation will probably improve its acceptance by an order of magnitude. But it’s strange that previous public announcements haven’t materialized in anything, in particular the following one: “On April 23rd 2008, S60 enhanced its web Run-Time capabilities by integrating with Platform Services. Platform Services allow widgets to access S60’s numerous applications and services securely, including the calendar, contacts, messaging, audio, video, images, GPS, and camera, via JavaScript APIs.” (http://www.s60.com/life/thisiss60/s60indetail/technologiesandfeatures/webruntime) IMHO, that claimed functionality will be very useful to developers, but unfortunately Nokia has not delivered it yet. I can think of a number of speculative causes:
    – Symbian Foundation postponed the WRT 2.0 release
    – Operators have rejected the whole concept of WRT
    – Nokia is waiting to the Tube phone
    – Within the Symbian/S60 development teams, they don’t back a very powerful WRT (a fully functional WRT 2.0 could half the number of programs already available to S60)

    You understand the significance of mobile web browsing so, what is happening within Symbian/Nokia? What previous cause is the more correct one.

    Comment by Anonymous — 12 September 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  7. Hi David,

    >To check movies and cinemas in London, whatever the browser, check out http://www.londonnet.co.uk/films/ and http://www.londonnet.co.uk/cinema/.

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve added these bookmarks on my phone.

    Hi Sachenrda,

    >I guess most people would not consider Opera Mini because of the "mini" in the name. There have been some great reviews of mini recently.

    On reflection, the name “mini” is not completely inappropriate, since there are some functionality drawbacks in using it. For example, there’s no display of italics text; ads on Facebook and in Google come up in Norwegian text since these websites mis-identify my location as being in Norway (due no doubt to the intermediate Opera servers there); and various editing options simply fail – such as when I try to update my status on either Facebook or LinkedIn. But despite these shortcomings, I’m still enjoying using Opera Mini: I put up with these limitations in order to benefit from the swifter page handling and fewer crashes.

    Hi Anonymous,

    >IMHO, that claimed [WRT] functionality will be very useful to developers, but unfortunately Nokia has not delivered it yet. I can think of a number of speculative causes:

    Thanks for the comments. I’ll try to respond to your suggestions:

    >- Symbian Foundation postponed the WRT 2.0 release
    >- Operators have rejected the whole concept of WRT
    >- Within the Symbian/S60 development teams, they don’t back a very powerful WRT (a fully functional WRT 2.0 could half the number of programs already available to S60)

    I see no evidence of any of these.

    >- Nokia is waiting to the Tube phone

    More likely, it is simply a matter of time before the enhancements are included in software that is included in shipping phones.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 13 September 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  8. Hi David,

    >To check movies and cinemas in London, whatever the browser, check out http://www.londonnet.co.uk/films/ and http://www.londonnet.co.uk/cinema/.

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve added these bookmarks on my phone.

    Hi Sachenrda,

    >I guess most people would not consider Opera Mini because of the "mini" in the name. There have been some great reviews of mini recently.

    On reflection, the name “mini” is not completely inappropriate, since there are some functionality drawbacks in using it. For example, there’s no display of italics text; ads on Facebook and in Google come up in Norwegian text since these websites mis-identify my location as being in Norway (due no doubt to the intermediate Opera servers there); and various editing options simply fail – such as when I try to update my status on either Facebook or LinkedIn. But despite these shortcomings, I’m still enjoying using Opera Mini: I put up with these limitations in order to benefit from the swifter page handling and fewer crashes.

    Hi Anonymous,

    >IMHO, that claimed [WRT] functionality will be very useful to developers, but unfortunately Nokia has not delivered it yet. I can think of a number of speculative causes:

    Thanks for the comments. I’ll try to respond to your suggestions:

    >- Symbian Foundation postponed the WRT 2.0 release
    >- Operators have rejected the whole concept of WRT
    >- Within the Symbian/S60 development teams, they don’t back a very powerful WRT (a fully functional WRT 2.0 could half the number of programs already available to S60)

    I see no evidence of any of these.

    >- Nokia is waiting to the Tube phone

    More likely, it is simply a matter of time before the enhancements are included in software that is included in shipping phones.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 13 September 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  9. Hi David,

    thanks for suggesting opera mini. I never tried it before for the same reasons you didn’t. Mini didn’t sound very appealing. I suggest they find a better name. 🙂
    It’s really good. I might kiss webkit goodbye for a while.
    And of course, keeping an eye open for fennec: http://blog.pavlov.net/2008/12/22/fennec-alpha-2/

    Also, on an other more interesting note for you (I guess), playing with opera mini I found two things that could be interesting for you:

    – browsing youtube with my E66 the realtime player does not “inherit” the access point from opera mini. What I mean is: if I browse via wifi with webkit, when I try to watch a video, realplayer uses wifi, but when I browse using opera mini via wifi, the real player uses its predefined access point.

    – despite the common sense would say the opposite (due to larger bandwidth), my videos are so much more fluid via 3G than via wifi.
    I tested the same video several time and always the video is crystal clear and fluid over 3G and looses some packets over wifi.
    Am I the only one with this issue?
    Since this is an home brew test, I only had one operator 3G network to test, an one ISP wifi… 😉
    Is there some obvious technical reason that I miss that explains this behaviour?
    Of course, youtube via wifi on my laptop is perfect.
    Did Nokia / Symbian do any publicly available study on this?

    cheers,

    alfonso

    Comment by alfonso — 29 December 2008 @ 11:00 pm


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