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Skyfire, the mobile browser maker that is now working with carriers to tame mobile data, just raised an $8 million Series C round with participation from Verizon Ventures (s vz). The funding, which also came from existing investors Matrix Partners, Trinity Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, helps Skyfire expand its Rocket Optimizer product, a data compression service that helps carriers reduce data by 60 percent on mobile devices. And it also helps Skyfire launch a new browser portal for carriers that helps them regain some relevancy to mobile subscribers.
Skyfire cloud service Rocket Optimizer 2.0 launched in October, boasting the ability to handle LTE support and instant optimization for almost any video format. With the ability to apply granular controls for video optimization based on cell tower congestion, device type, subscriber profile and service plan, the company said it can effectively add 25-percent capacity to any cell tower with its technology. Skyfire is now looking to take its new funding and expand overseas, particularly in Europe and Asia, where it’s building out its footprint.
Skyfire is expanding its role serving mobile operators with the launch of its Rocket Toolbar for carriers, which will be able to create a customizable web-based portal embedded in the default browser on mobile devices. Rocket Toolbar builds off Skyfire’s earlier inclusion of sharing and social features in its popular web browser, giving operators a “beachfront property” on the browser users turn to most often. Carriers that use Rocket Toolbar will be able to customize a user interface with toolbar extensions that offer contextual recommendations, advertisements, app discovery, social sharing and friends’ news feeds.
Skyfire said it has two “tier one” North American carriers that will deploy Rocket Optimizer and Rocket Toolbar by this spring. Skyfire isn’t naming them, but Verizon has to be one, though it’s unclear which product they’re going to use. The company is breaking even in North America and is working on trials with European carriers.
With Rocket Toolbar, Skyfire is trying to help put carriers back into the heart of a user’s mobile experience. They used to be front and center with portals on their device decks, but with modern operating systems, they have been relegated more and more to data providers. Their attempts to include preloaded apps are criticized as bloatware. Now, with Rocket Toolbar, they can get much closer to consumers again on an almost daily basis.
But it’s unclear how consumers will take to this new UI over their browser. Some may find a lot more utility in Rocket Toolbar, which brings a lot of context and social discovery to browsing. But the carriers could overplay their hand by being too pushy with ads or recommendations that don’t provide clear value or by directing people to their own app stores.
Jeff Glueck, CEO of Skyfire, told me the toolbar is customizable and can be turned off by users if they don’t like it. But he said Skyfire has learned a lot of lessons with its browsers, which have been downloaded by 12 million users. Users are able to see what their friends have liked and shared on different websites, and they can get recommendations on what to read, making the browsing experience more engaging. He thinks carriers can benefit by providing these services, making some money and getting an opportunity to be in front of users.
“There is little real estate to let carriers offer new services. They have no touch points with users to offer value added services or sell advertising,” said Glueck. “That’s what Skyfire is all about: leveraging the cloud and letting carriers thrive in an over the top world.”
Skyfire’s approach, becoming the best friend of carriers, makes sense to me. The mobile data boom is real, and offering a smart compression solution should make it attractive to carriers. Getting Verizon as a backer should also provide a big shot of legitimacy as Skyfire takes its technology worldwide. I’m curious how consumers will receive the Toolbar, a lot of which will depend on how carriers implement it. But it’s another way in which Skyfire is capitalizing on the needs of operators.