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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