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Opera Mini on iPhone is fast, but why?

We came, we saw, and we're still scratching our heads over what Opera is up to with its Mobile World Congress demonstration of its Opera Mini browser running on the iPhone 3GS. But before we get into that, let's talk performance: it's fast. Opera Mini is very, very fast on the iPhone. Loading the New York Times, for example, was about 5x faster than loading the same page in the iPhone 3GS' stock browser. Pages loaded smoothly and were interactive just as quickly as the content began to load -- not unlike the Safari browsing experience. From a functionality standpoint, Opera Mini operates exactly as it does on other, less-contentious platforms. So while double-tap to zoom is supported, pinch-to-zoom is not. The iPhone version does, however, remember the state of the browser when you exit Opera Mini. As such, you'll find your tabs and recent pages right where they were when you last used the app.

The impressive performance gain has to do with how Opera Mini works. First, it's not doing any rendering of the pages or code processing locally. Web pages are processed by Opera's servers before sending just the results to the iPhone. Not only does this speed up the local processing but it also limits the amount of data sent -- a potential big money saver for people browsing while data roaming (like us in Barcelona) or for those without unlimited data plans.

Unfortunately, Opera refused to let us or anyone photograph the app or take any video of it in action. We couldn't even photograph the Opera icon in the launch bar or the wallpaper adorned with the Opera logo. Why? It looks just like Opera Mini beta on any other device so it's not like we're exposing any competitive intelligence. And it's not like Opera would be violating any Apple NDA related to the SDK or the app approval process. Unfortunately, Opera was unable to give us a valid reason other than, "you just can't."

So why is Opera making such a fuss about this before it has even submitted to Apple for approval? We have three theories that we discussed with Igor Netto, Senior Product Manager within Opera's Mobile group. Click through if you like conspiracies.

First, the demo is emotive. And what better way to get eyeballs on your products than with scandalous talk? And honestly, how much did you know about Opera Mini prior to all this. At the very least, the whole effort has been one of marketing genius whether intentional or not even if Opera never submits Mini for approval.

Second, Opera legitimately wants to get its Mini browser approved. And why not? While the iPhone only makes up a sliver of the global smartphone device market share, its Safari browser accounts for well over half of all mobile web browser traffic by many estimates. Of course Opera wants a slice of that pie. Igor assured us that Opera will be submitting the app for approval just as soon as the beta tag is removed. And by announcing and demoing its software now to the press, Opera's hope is to develop enough grassroots support that Apple will have a tough time rejecting it. Igor did, however, concede that backing Apple into a corner might not be the best approach.

So what happens if Apple rejects the app, we asked? After all, Apple maintains the option of rejecting any app that "duplicates functionality" of the apps that Apple builds into the iPhone. Igor's response was clear, "There will be very strong discussion internally."

That leads us to the third, and most sinister theory about Opera's intentions: Opera is building a case for litigation. Not that they will litigate, rather, that it's developing a case should litigation be required. Igor assured us that this is not the case. However, it's worth remembering that Apple has been testing the ire of Norway's consumer advocacy groups since at least 2006. More recently, Opera filed an EU antitrust complaint in 2007 against Microsoft aimed at "giving consumers a genuine choice of Web browsers." A move that ultimately forced a "ballot screen" meant to allow EU owners a choice of browsers on their Windows 7 install. Similar language was echoed last week by Opera co-founder, Jon von Tetzchner, in a DailyTech interview. When asked how Opera will get Apple to approve its software, JvT responded using very similar language to the Microsoft anti-trust complaint, "Opera Mini is the world's most popular mobile browser and users on the iPhone deserve a choice."

By hook or by crook Opera?

P.S. We hope Apple approves it.