Opera raises curtain on mobile browsing

A new version of Opera's Web browser, with revamped small-screen rendering technology, is due to debut next week

Users of Sony Ericsson's P800 smartphone will be the first to get their hands on Opera Software's revamped mobile Web browser next week, when the software makes its first public appearance.

Opera for the P800 will be available for download from Sony Ericsson's Web site on Monday, coinciding with the launch of the 3GSM telecoms trade show in Cannes, France.

Opera first unveiled its small-screen rendering technology in October, claiming it had finally solved the long-standing problem of how to view Web pages written for PC screens on a tiny device. "Some companies filter part of the content to make it fit onto a limited browser," said Opera chief executive Jon von Tetzchner at the time. "But we're putting a real browser on there, the same you have on the desktop."

Opera's new method makes scrolling easier by stacking the content of a Web page vertically. That way, surfers only have to scroll up and down to read it.

Sony Ericsson is the first to strike a deal with Opera for the browser, paying the software company an undisclosed amount in order to provide users with a free download. Versions of Opera for the desktop can be downloaded for free, but the free version displays advertisements; only the paid-for version comes ad-free for the desktop.

Opera said it is working with other phone makers on including the browser in other handsets. Among potential partners are the backers of Symbian, a smartphone operating system maker co-owned by Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson, Siemens and others. The Symbian OS powers the P800.

The P800 is currently available in shops in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Italy and Greece as well as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong, and is expected to launch in the UK in the coming weeks.

"This is bringing the full Internet to your mobile phone. You can go in and download any Web page, and 99 percent of the pages will be able to display on your phone," said an Opera spokeswoman.

Opera has made a previous version of the browser for Symbian -- running on Nokia's Communicator handset -- but the new software is the product of an initiative to rewrite the browser's rendering engine from scratch. That rewritten engine forms the basis of Opera 7, which includes in the Windows version the new small-screen rendering technology so that Web page authors can see how the mobile phone will display pages. (See ZDNet UK's review: Opera 7 for Windows.)

The new browser is also significantly smaller than its mobile predecessor, at about 1.5MB compared with about 3MB, Opera said. Opera 7 for Windows is 3.4MB.

Several rival methods exist for displaying Internet content on mobile devices. One method, advanced by the Open Mobile Alliance, has been to promulgate a language for publishing small versions of big Web pages. But that technology, called WAP (Wireless Application Protocol), has failed to achieve the kind of omnipresence enjoyed by the desktop-bred Web lingua franca, HTML.

Microsoft, Palm and Handspring all offer browsers designed to view full HTML Web pages on handhelds, with Palm and Handspring's models relying on proxy servers to do much of the necessary reformatting.

However, one analyst said that Opera's technology was substantially better than anything else available.

"I think it's absolutely phenomenal technology," said Michael Gartenberg, analyst with Jupiter Research, when the browser first appeared. "This is the kind of situation where Opera could potentially give Microsoft a run for its money in mobility."

CNET News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.

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