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Opera's browser provides shelter from cell data limits

Opera Software has deals in place to power the Web browser on many feature phones.
Opera Software has deals in place to power the Web browser on many feature phones.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Opera's mobile browsers use technology that reduces the data size of a Web page
  • This mechanism, called Turbo, can save consumers time and money on their phone bills
  • On Monday Opera released a second version of its browser called Opera Mobile
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San Francisco, California (CNN) -- People usually don't give much thought to which Web browser they run on their phones. But thanks to new limits being imposed by cellular carriers, Opera Software's applications could find more fans.

The Opera browsers, available for computers and many cell phones, are powered by a proprietary technology called Turbo.

When connected to slower, non-3G cell networks, Opera can load pages five times faster than a smartphone's default browser and save money on phone bills by using tricks to compress data, the Norwegian company says.

Here are the nerdy details: Turbo does the rendering and interpretation of a page on Opera's servers, a process which normally takes place on the phone's hardware. Technology companies call it "cloud computing." This allows the company to send more complete packages -- using smaller amounts of data -- to your phone.

While Opera implements this same method to reduce load times in its desktop programs, the savings are less noticeable. Modern computers have fast enough processors to crunch the data, and home broadband access is generally not capped.

But the limitations of cell phones and networks have helped Opera catapult its 15-year-old brand into the hands of 70 million people -- 10 million of them in the U.S. -- who use that browser on mobile devices regularly.

Worldwide, 50 million people use Opera's desktop browser, which has been around for more than a decade. The rest of the Opera browsers are installed on more unusual products, like Nintendo's Wii, Ford's trucks and shopping carts with barcode readers.

"We deliver on every platform," Jon von Tetzchner, Opera's co-founder and former chief executive, told CNN. "We're bigger than most people think."

On Monday Opera released a second version of its browser, a more fully featured app called Opera Mobile.

Surfing the internet on feature phones -- such as flip phones, with limited processing power and storage -- is impractical without something like Opera's optimization system. Turbo has also been a sort of savior to residents of smaller countries that lack solid internet infrastructure. Opera is the No. 1 browser in Georgia and Belarus, the company said.

"In big parts of the world, you would not see the data penetration and data usage you see if it was not for our browser," von Tetzchner said. "We're going for the global market."

There are about 5 billion active cell phone subscriptions worldwide, according to the U.N. telecommunications agency. Just 13 percent of those are for smartphones, said a report last week from Informa Telecoms & Media -- though that share is closer to one-quarter in the U.S.

U.S. cell carriers are making the case for Opera here, both in partnerships with the browser maker and by limiting how much data subscribers can use.

Verizon Wireless began offering cheaper data plans a couple of weeks ago for consumers who pledge to stay under a certain monthly limit. T-Mobile USA slows a customer's wireless internet usage when that person exceeds 5 gigabytes in a month. (Each carrier has signed agreements to install Opera on some of their handsets.)

AT&T, the exclusive U.S. carrier of Apple's iPhone, no longer offers unlimited data plans for new customers.

Because of Opera's Turbo, you might be able to, say, drop to AT&T's $15 data plan and still access as many pages as the $25 plan would allow when using Apple's default browser, an Opera spokeswoman said. For example, you could see about 10 times more Facebook profiles with the same data allotment, she said.

The free Opera Mini app for iPhone is the most popular mobile Opera browser in the U.S., von Tetzchner said. On the downside, Opera's engine can make websites look odd, tests show.

Firefox maker Mozilla, a longtime competitor of Opera on the desktop, says it's competitively focused on privacy, security and how users interact with its mobile browser for Google's Android platform. Mozilla's programs attract a total audience of 400 million.

Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of products, suggested Opera's Turbo strategy may be less relevant in the age of smartphones. For one thing, that system introduces some incompatibilities with advanced Web apps.

"It's mainly for feature phones," Sullivan said of Opera's Turbo acceleration. "I think [cell] networks are getting better," perhaps making the technology unnecessary, he said.

Some of the information Opera collects from routing pages through its servers is being used for an advertising network it launched recently, von Tetzchner said. The company is taking precautions to protect privacy by not using info that can be linked to a specific person, a spokeswoman said.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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