So Opera Mini Is Now on the iPhone — So What?

Opera yesterday accomplished something many thought would never happen: Its Opera Mini 5 browser was approved for sale in the iTunes App Store. The popular browser boasts more than 50 million users worldwide thanks to several key features: fast browsing speeds, a tabbed interface and Opera Link, which synchronizes user bookmarks from Opera on a desktop. In other words, owners of iPhone OS (s aapl) devices now have a viable alternative when it comes to surfing the web on their handset, iPod touch or iPad. But how many people will actually use it?

Opera Mini brings a desktop-like browsing experience to feature phones that don’t already offer one. Thanks to the server-side compression — Opera serves up pages it optimizes on the fly — using Opera Mini is fast and uses less wireless bandwidth than native browsers. If you have a feature phone with a marginal browser or you’re watching your data usage, Opera Mini is a boon. But do iPhone users fit into either of those categories?

To find out, I installed Opera Mini for iPhone last night and took the browser for a spin. It’s fast — faster than Safari, in most cases. But unlike on other mobile devices, I didn’t have anything close to a desktop-like experience with it. And overall, I spent more time trying to get at information on the web, not less, as the fast loading and rendering speeds were negated by unreadable text. Essentially, I had to zoom in to read any text at all, and it was so small that most of the time I didn’t even know what I was tapping. Plus, it’s a scroll-fest to navigate. The comparison screen caps below illustrate the visual challenges, but let’s just say I was left convinced that devices running the iPhone OS don’t need Opera Mini.

The iPhone’s native Safari browser is already optimized for a high-quality mobile browsing experience. The same unreadable sites in full screen on Opera Mini are quite readable in Safari (see below). Safari may render more slowly, but you spend far less time guessing at what you want to tap, and in many cases, you don’t need to zoom at all.

Make no mistake: Apple allowing an alternative browser is important and it’s a coup of sorts for the Opera team to get a second browser on the iPhone OS. But Opera Mini’s greatest strength — offering a solid browsing experience on devices that are incapable of delivering the mobile web — is diluted on the iPhone, which already provides a capable web experience. Some will adopt Opera Mini on their iPhone for speed and throughput savings, but I don’t think Opera’s victory will equate to more than a historical footnote when it comes to most everyday iPhone users.

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