Opera Software released a final version of its new browser for wireless handsets, known as Mini, and said it hopes to spur increased use of the mobile Internet by distributing the application free of charge.
The browser was designed as a simplified version of the Norwegian software makers previous wireless offering, Opera Mobile Browser, which is meant to run on so-called smart phones, or sophisticated wireless devices that offer the memory to store and run such applications.
Mini claims to deliver a better Web experience to more low-end devices, or any handset capable of running Java-based mobile applications, which includes many popular phones already in the hands of consumers.
Built on the same technology used in Opera Mobile, Mini uses a remote server system to compress Web site content and beam it back to peoples handsets.
In theory, that design allows the browser to run on the memory-starved devices that are currently ubiquitous among U.S. wireless subscribers.
Company officials maintain that the browser could run on hundreds of millions of existing phones that use WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) to access the Web, giving it a huge potential audience worldwide versus the smaller numbers of customers using smart phones.
Opera said that during the course of its trials in Germany and Europes Nordic countries, it was able to convince more than 1 million people to download Mini.
The browser is now available for download directly from the companys Web site via SMS.
By giving the browser away at no cost and trying to lure people who may not have been willing to access the mobile Web before, Opera officials said they believe they can spark a new wave of wireless Internet adoption.
With limited real estate on the displays of most of todays handsets, only a minority of wireless subscribers currently use their phones to access the Internet.
“We want to kick-start the mobile Internet revolution, as we feel that Mini is a great alternative for people who dont have smart phones, which is a vast majority of the wireless subscribers worldwide,” said Eskil Sivertsen, an Opera spokesperson.
“Distribution of Mini wont happen overnight, but we think that people will pick it up and be encouraged to use the wireless Web more over time.”
According to Opera, people who downloaded the beta version of the software viewed an average of between 20 and 30 Web pages per session, which Sivertsen believes proves that the browser delivers a friendlier interface than traditional WAP applications.
If more people begin using the application, the company also contends that more Web site owners will be convinced to create customized versions of their pages specifically for mobile visitors.
Convincing Users and Providers
Since Mini is being given away to users, Opera is betting that it can convince wireless operators and content providers to pay to license a “white box” version of the software that can be used to market their own online services, and drive revenue based on those types of deals.
Sivertsen said wireless carriers are desperate to convince users to try out mobile Web applications, which will also convince them to begin pre-loading Mini on new phones.
“Operators stand to see data traffic increase if people go online, and they know there are a lot of new revenue streams that can be built of off wireless Web, so we will make deals,” said Sivertsen.
“For our part, we think we can get people to start browsing for free today and bring those users over to future products, some of which might not be free.”
The spokesperson said Opera is currently in negotiations with several carriers, but did not offer specific details of those dealings.
According to Forrester Research, the mobile Web does continue to grow in terms of traffic, but not at a spectacular rate.
Based on the firms annual benchmark survey of 65,000 U.S. households, some 15 percent of mobile services subscribers accessed the Internet from their devices in 2005, compared to 6 percent in 2004.
Charles Golvin, a Forrester analyst, predicts that number will increase again in 2006, but he said he does not believe that better mobile browsers will be a significant catalyst for any increase.
“The browser is not the impediment to mobile Internet adoption; people arent avoiding it because of lousy browser, but because the experience of mobile Internet isnt great,” he said.
“I dont believe that having the option to put a better browser on the handset will be such a big deal to mobile Internet growth.”
In addition to sites that dont translate well to the small screen, no matter what technology is used to compress them, Golvin said that wireless networks remain too slow to support Web use on most phones, even when people use sites customized by carriers and programmed onto the phones they distribute.
The analyst said that it may also be hard for Opera to land deals with wireless carriers, as companies including Access and Openwave already have established relationships with many operators.
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