Opera 4.2 Browser Blooms in Android’s Unwalled Garden

Opera Software has thrown open the doors to reveal the final version of its popular Opera Mini 4.2 browser for mobile phones. The 4.2 version has been in beta the last few weeks, and now that Opera Software has opened a new server park, users of the browser in the United States should see a 30 percent speed boost.

This release is the first version officially available for Google’s Android mobile platform — and the T-Mobile G1 smartphone. It’s also the first Web browser alternative to the built-in browser on the open Android platform.

Opera Mini 4.2 adds more language versions and offers new skins to let users personalize the look and feel of the browser. Opera Mini’s claim to fame is speed, which is delivered in part by cutting out superfluous content on Web pages.

How It Works

Opera has remote servers set up that pre-process Web pages before sending them to a user’s phone. The content is compressed to reduce the size of the data transfers, which enables faster browsing — even on feature phones. For U.S. users, the 30 percent speed gain with 4.2 comes largely from a new Opera server park; however, Opera says that other users around the world should also see improvements due to a reduced load on other servers.

The browser runs on a wide variety of Java-capable mobile phones, including certain BlackBerry, Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson models, as well as phones that run Windows Mobile.

Opera Software reports that 21 million unique users browsed 5 billion pages in October 2008 alone, making it the world’s most popular mobile Web browser.

“It is without question the world’s most popular aftermarket mobile Web browser, but I couldn’t tell you if it is the most used overall,” Avi Greengart, research director of wireless devices for Current Analysis, told LinuxInsider.

“Nokia sells an awful lot of phones with mobile browsers,” he added.

Regardless of whether it’s extremely popular or just very popular — is it really that good?

“For devices with small screens or limited connectivity, no question — Opera Mini does the best job of quickly modifying the site for your tiny screen on its servers, and then sends just that data on to your phone. It is certainly my mobile browser of choice for feature phones,” Greengart explained.

No Opera Love for iPhone

While Opera Software has created a version of its Opera Mini for the Apple iPhone, the company was reportedly rejected by Apple last month because Opera Mini replicates core functionality already built into the iPhone — namely Apple’s own Safari Web browser. Other reports indicated that Opera had created an iPhone browser but hadn’t submitted it for approval, thus was never rejected. Regardless, the fact remains that there is no alternative browser available through Apple’s official App Store, and none will get there without the company’s explicit approval.

This point highlights the stark contrast between the openness of the Android platform and Apple iPhone/iPod touch walled garden.

“As a general rule, Apple likes to control the user experience as much as possible. While Apple has opened up the App Store to all comers, there are a number of ill-defined gates to getting programs onto the iPhone. This appears to protect Apple’s own software development efforts for the platform, which means that users get a consistent Apple experience across major functions, but miss out on potentially disruptive innovations from others,” Greengart noted.

“Google is taking the opposite approach, hoping that the development community can smooth over Android’s rough edges, fill in missing functionality, and potentially tinker with the OS itself,” he explained.

“Right now, Android is mostly potential, and while I can reasonably know what the iPhone experience will be like a year from now, I can’t predict whether Android will be a whole lot better … or just the same,” he added.

Meanwhile, Opera Mini 4.2 is available in the Android Market as well as via direct downloads from Opera.com and OperaMini.com.

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