Services & Software

Opera phone browser could upstage rivals

Opera Software's new technology for browsing Web pages on tiny cell phone screens could deal a blow to both Microsoft and WAP.

Opera Software says it has finally solved the long-standing problem of reading big, bulky Web pages on tiny cell phone screens, posing a potential threat to both WAP and to Microsoft.

"We massage the content so that is fits onto the screen," said Opera Chief Executive Jon von Tetzchner of the company's new small-screen rendering technology. "Some companies filter part of the content to make it fit onto a limited browser. But we're putting a real browser on there, the same you have on the desktop."

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

The company's approach to Web browsing by cell phone and other small devices is just the latest strategy to overcome a difficult technological conundrum--how to access Web pages built for 17-inch desktop screens on cell phones that fit in shirt pockets.

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.

Another strategy has been to let cell phone surfers scroll normal HTML pages side to side and up and down, giving them a dime-size view of the whole page.

One analyst called the new technique a major step forward in cell phone Web browsing, and a potentially serious threat to WAP.

"I think it's absolutely phenomenal technology," said Michael Gartenberg, analyst with Jupiter Research. "It's certainly going to make it more difficult for WAP to gain much further traction, because it obviates a lot of the need for WAP going forward. But we don't think WAP will disappear as a result."

Gartenberg said Opera's progress was significant enough to alter the dynamics of the browser market, which has remained largely static following Microsoft's acknowledged victory in the desktop browser space with Internet Explorer.

"This will certainly expand the competition," Gartenberg said. "This is the kind of situation where Opera could potentially give Microsoft a run for its money in mobility.", an AOL Time Warner-funded open-source development project, has also positioned its browser as one designed for use with small browsing devices.

Microsoft and the Open Mobile Alliance, which promotes WAP, did not return calls for comment.

Opera's new browsing technology comes out of a recently unveiled initiative to rewrite the browser's engine from scratch. That rewritten engine will form the basis of Opera 7, and will include in the Windows version the new small-screen rendering technology so that Web page authors can see how the cell phone will display pages.

Tetzchner said small-screen rendering would become available as cell phone manufacturers adopt it, probably by the end of the year or early next quarter.