It’s a big news day in the mobile world today with Nokia announcing a netbook, Spinvox spokesman and well known mobile blogger James Whatley leaving the beleaguered company and Google openning submissions for the second Android Developer Challenge.
Somewhat lost in the flurry of news were a couple of other stories that I think will have a big long term impact on the way we develop for and use our mobile devices.
First up, TorchMobile announced that they have been acquired by RIM. This is significant because Torch’s main product is Iris, a Webkit based direct browser for Windows Mobile 5 and 6. I’ve never been a WinMo user and I haven’t heard much about Iris, but the feature set, which includes a widget engine and support for the W3C Geolocation API, HTML5′s canvas tag (graphics and embedded video) and client side storage looks very promising. Reviews (by Mobility Site, MobilityNigeria and SmartphoneBlogging) have been positive, if not gushing. RIM has not yet announced the deal, let alone said what their plans are for Iris, but TorchMobile’s announcement doesn’t mince words saying.
“Our team of developers will join RIM’s global organization and will now be focused on utilizing our WebKit-based mobile browser expertise to contribute to the ongoing enhancement of the BlackBerry® platform.”
The company also says that all development and support for the Windows Mobile versions of Iris is ending. If you have a WinMo phone and want Iris, better act fast, the official download page is already gone. You can still find Iris on sites like Rapidshare with a Google search
What does this mean for developers and users? For one thing, except for Windows Mobile, devices on all the major smartphone platforms; iPhone, Symbian, Palm Pre, Android and BlackBerry will soon ship with a Webkit based browser. That should make life easier for developers wanting to bring advanced web apps to mobile devices. And for users it will hopefully mean that more sites and widgets will work on their phones regardless of which platform they are using.
So where does this leave Opera Software, whose Opera Mobile provides the main alternative to Webkit based browsers on advanced devices? Actually I don’t think Opera will be hurt by Webkit’s ubiquity. First of all, Opera has consistently built what I consider to be better mobile browsers than any of the Webkit implementations. For example, I have never seen a Webkit based mobile browser where the cache worked properly, pressing the “Back” button always seems to reload the page, wasting time and network resources. The Webkit based browsers I have used also generally did not have a fit to width option and dedicated page up and page down keys, features that are standard on Opera browsers and are critical to browsing effectively on mobile. Opera mobile browsers also tend to be faster than Webkit based ones. Opera Turbo, which combines the speed of server assisted browsing with the security of the end to end encryption provided by direct browsing, will raise the bar even higher. I expect that Opera will continue to offer better alternative browsers on all platforms and by doing so will be able to monetize the various Opera products effectively with sales and search engine deals.
Opera is a strong proponent of web standards, as are the open source developers behind the Webkit core. I expect that interoperability of web services and widgets between Webkit based browsers and Opera ones will be high.
Competing with Webkit for smartphone market share is not Opera’s main strategy. Opera targets all devices from desktops to the most basic of feature phones using the same core rendering engine across all platforms. Opera Mobile ships on Nintendo Wii and DSi, Archos tablets and many Windows Mobile devices. It was also included in the Sony Mylo and a number of Motorola MOTOMAGX Linux and P2K RTOS feature phones Opera Mini runs on just about every Java ME equiped phone and ships as the embeded default browser on many on them.
Phonenew’s Christopher Price thinks that the Sprint deal to bundle Opera Mobile with the Instinct HD is the major U.S. operator deal that Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner mentioned in an interview last month. I don’t think that it is, that deal was supposed to be for Opera Mini, not Mobile and I believe that it involves AT&T.
I don’t think RIM’s adoption of Webkit means trouble for Opera. There’s a place and a need for more than one browser engine in mobile. The space is big enough for at least two and we need completion to drive innovation. With Opera on Windows Mobile and on feature phones and Webkit on other smartphone platforms combined with Webkit and Opera’s support for standards, we can expect to see consistent HTML5 and CSS3 implementations on all mobile devices which will do much to drive development and adoption of advanced browser based apps and service across the mobile space.