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The mobile web: in praise of conv ... divergence

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Hands on Opera says it's served up 2 billion web pages through its Mini service, bringing the web to phones previously incapable of running an http browser.

This week the Norwegian software company rolled out the third version of Mini, adding features and performance improvements. And we took a look.

Mini is really a service - it's a compressing proxy running on Opera's servers - with a Java applet as the browser. Version 3.0 adds secure connections, which means it's now a lot more interactive. You can logon to web-based email, and log into eBay, for example. This removes the single biggest differentiator between Mini and the venerable Opera Mobile.

The new Mini also introduces a feature Opera calls "content folding", which is designed to collapse those tediously long columns (such as "blogrolls"), which make vertical browsing some pages such a a nuisance. Because Mini stacks a page's columns into one vertical column, it can take alot of scrolling to reach the first item of "real" content.

We experienced mixed results with folding. Alas, Opera Mini doesn't yet have a Jump to the Bottom shortcut key, and it doesn't jump to the first item of real content, as Opera Mobile allows you to do.

These small usability issues aside, Mini 3.0 raises as many issues for the venerable Opera Mobile, as it does for rivals. Given the speed of Mini, and the fact that it's saving a considerable amount of money for users with metered data plans, you wonder why anyone would opt to pay for Mini's older big brother.

And it's a bargain that Opera is subsidizing, Thomas Ford admits.

"We don't make money from Mini. We wanted people to use it. We're waiting to see how to monetize it," he told us.

Given the fierce competition for Opera Mobile - particularly from NetFront and Nokia's new Konquerer browser - the lack of news may cause some concern.

Ford said "Mini was getting all the attention and downloads", which required Opera to invest more in Mini than Mobile.

Then again, Opera Mini scores so highly with its usability and speed, we had little hesitation in bumping Nokia's Web from being the default browser on our test E61 phone.

Ford disputes our suggestion that with Web 2.0, the rich desktop web and the mobile world are moving further apart, rather than converging.

"We have a big stake in the web," he told us.

But the problems today aren't the problems of the past ten years, that mobile data networks and devices are making slow progress. They're not: with HSDPA rollout, and real breakthroughs in processor performance reaching the market, phones are beginning justify the "multimedia computer" description Nokia likes to use these days.

(For example, even Sony Ericsson's too-buggy-to-recommend P990i phone, powered by a Philips processor, runs like a rocket. And two years out, Qualcomm predicts its Scorpion dual core processor will perform 2370 MIPS at clock speeds of 1Ghz.)

It isn't that mobile platforms speak a different language to the web: they're perfectly capable of running AJAX software, from Python to JavaScript to full-blown Java and Flash.

It's just that the mobile web is coming up against hard, physical limitations that technology can't surmount. Just compare the wealth of information on display on your "My eBay" page to eBay's paltry mobile offering. Or see what you're missing from a mobile rendering of an Amazon.com browsing session. Or try looking at a popular MySpace artiste.

It's all about peripheral vision: with bigger desktop displays, today's websites are increasingly designed for big screens, and naturally designers want to use those displays to the full.

The Mobile Web is possible, it's just not very or convenient or rewarding.

But there's no reason for there to be "one web", any more than any road vehicle has to have four seats, or four wheels. Unfortunately, the last people who'll admit that the mobile and desktop world's may be diverging are today's web designers, who have a bit of the Jacobin zeal about their historical destiny. The kind of pride which usually precedes a mighty fall.

Today's emphasis on (and veneration of ) mechanism simply obscures the fact that the web, or anything else, is simply what's getting in the way of a user and a service. With the emphasis on "getting in the way"...

Just as we figured the really smart bet by 3G network 3 recently was't the "open web" but the deals with Sling Media and Orb, when it comes to mobile, we'd put a side bet on on Flash, just in case.®

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