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Total folly? Opera submits Mini browser for iPhone approval

The big question is why Opera would go to lengths to submit a browser, whatever its merits, that has a high chance of being cut short.

We admit it: when we first heard that Opera was creating a browser for iPhone, we wondered if the browser company was bluffing to prove a point, namely, to pressure Apple into accepting a browser to compete with Safari. Yet Opera followed through on Tuesday, submitting Opera Mini 5 to the iPhone App Store. Before Opera submitted, we got a chance to play with the final version of Opera Mini on one of Opera's iPhones.

Opera Mini 5 for iPhone
No lie: Opera Mini 5 running on the iPhone. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Opera Mini 5 running on an iPhone looks and behaves almost identically to Opera Mini 5 on other mobile browsers, like Java and BlackBerry. The one major exception is the addition of session restore for iPhone, which will reload browsers from the previous session if you need to close and restart the browser. This is an important feature for a platform that runs only one third-party application at a time. Page caching was also notable on the demo version of Opera Mini for iPhone. Pressing the back arrow quickly surfaced the previous page without reloading it from scratch.

As interesting as these details might be, the real elephant in the room--the question perhaps being asked by those who follow Apple's submissions and rejections--is why Opera would go to lengths to submit a browser that has a high chance of never making it into the app store. Apple isn't known for approving browsers that aren't based on Webkit, which Opera Mini absolutely is not. Like many other iPhone apps, Opera wrote the back end of Mini using the Objective C programming language, Opera's founder and former CEO Jon von Tetzchner told CNET, and developed the front end "in our own little language."

Von Tetzchner has high hopes that Apple will accept Opera Mini, citing the browser's merits of speed, high compression rates that lead to rapid loading, and bookmark-syncing. What's more, he said, users should have plenty of choice when it comes to browsers, especially if Opera Mini is in high demand. But Opera's conviction would hardly seem like a compelling enough reason, and we can't imagine it would sway Apple.

More on the mark, perhaps, is the argument that Apple shouldn't nix Opera Mini because it may not actually violate rules laid out in Apple's software development kit (SDK). Unlike other Web browsers (including Opera Mobile,) Opera Mini is a proxy browser that delivers Web pages through Opera's servers. It isn't a standalone HTML browser that interprets and executes code on its own. This loophole is the more realistic justification for how von Tetzchner and the rest of the Opera team hope to get Opera Mini through the golden doors.

"The way we read things, we don't violate anything with [Apple's] SDK license," von Tetzchner told CNET. "From our perspective, there's no reason why Apple would not allow Opera...It brings something really different to iPhone users."

Again, we're not convinced that will be reason enough for Apple's application approval team, but if it is, acceptance could signal a sea change that would make Opera Mini the most notable browsing alternative to Safari on iPhone.