The role of the browser

I had an interesting experience with a recent mobile development project. The company wanted to showcase the full capabilities of their platform, but they ended up disabling a key feature. The technology allowed the client application to poll the server at regular intervals for updated content. However, the company was unwilling to include this in the final version because they were so concerned users with incorrectly configured network settings would receive error messages which impacted their user experience.

The target audience for the application was small and limited exclusively to mobile industry executives, but even so, experience had taught them there are still far too many handsets out there unable to connect to the web because they are not properly configured. At the most basic level, this developer did not trust network operators to fulfill one of the core parts of their business – ensuring subscribers can connect to services.

It sounds like such a simple issue, but it can be one of the most devasting factors impacting the overall experience of mobile data. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who is aware of quantitative research on how many users are prevented from accessing a third party or operator service because their device has not been pre-configured for mobile internet access.

I was reminded of this issue today when I download the latest 2.0 version of Opera Mini, the Java-based mobile web browser. Opera is enjoying remarkable success distributing this application as a free, independent download and working in collaboration with operators, media companies and handset manufacturers to offer branded versions.

The first thing a user has to do when they launch the application is click a link to test whether their handset is configured correctly for mobile internet access. It is characteristic of the close attention Opera has paid to enhancing the user experience in this latest version. It has also stripped-down the standard home page, providing ‘no click’ access to Google search, personal bookmarks and a history list. It has also taken the simple, but very welcome, step of including a URL launch box on the start screen. According to operators and mobile search engines, portal-based search boxes are regularly mistaken for address bars because users are unable to find the launch dialog through the complicated browser menu system.

Other improvements include the ability to link directly to SMS payment mechanisms to allow users to download premium content directly from the web browser, further optimisation of the speed and accuracy of the small screen rendering engine and a skin system to customise the appearance of the browser.

Opera has been producing browsers for mobile devices for many years, as far back as the Psion Series 5 mobile computer in 1998. Its strategy has varied between working with handset manufacturers to provide it as a pre-installed application to persauding operators it can deliver an integrated home-screen and mobile services platform. Originally the technology was geared towards providing an optimised browsing experience for standard web-sites, for the simple reason that there were so very few mobile-specific sites available in the early stages. More recently, Opera has been working to converge the two into a single application, moving beyond the stage when most companies specified both a standard WAP browser and Opera as an extra.

I believe there is strong potential for the browser to be the key component of operators’ overall handset customisation and mobile services platforms. There is nothing to prevent this open standards, browser-based approach from eventually becoming the dominant method content discovery in the mobile environment, just as it has done on the desktop. To achieve this, however, the concept of the browser will need to be extended to incorporate certain features – such as enhanced caching, OTA updates and deep integration with messaging capabilities, to reflect the unique factors of the mobile experience.

Opera is strongly placed because of its long experience in the market and the quality of its technology. However, there are numerous and formidable competitors out there: Openwave, Access and Obigo to name a few. Access and Openwave, in particular, have enormous potential to leverage their existing license agreements with handset manufacturers and their additional technology assets in the mobile application platform space. Following its acquisition of PalmSource, Access has the ability to offer a full mobile operating system alongside its browser, backed by a large community of developers.

Regardless of the competitive race, I believe we will see much closer collaboration between browser developers, manufacturers, operators and media companies as the importance of a great mobile services experience becomes more and more pertinent.

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