Opera Mini on iPhone – Nice try

It was Tuesday morning and I started the day as usual, scanning through the nightly mails and twitter. Then there are these posts making me think it’s April Fools all over again: Opera Mini hit the App Store. I honestly didn’t expect Apple to approve that one. I have my suspicions as to why Apple did approve it, but let’s talk about that later. Opera already made a big deal about this whole thing on multiple occasions and even included a timer to show how long it took Apple to make the browser available in the App Store.

The browser’s primary advantage over Safari is the fact that it’s fast. This speed up is possible because every single page you access is going through Opera’s own servers. This applies to regular http-traffic but also to SSL-encrypted connections! You do not, I repeat, you do not want to access sensitive sites that require authentication – like your banking site for example – with Opera Mini! This is one of my main issues I have with Opera Mini on every platform.

Another problem are the UI inconsistencies compared to (almost) every other app that’s available for the iPhone OS. For example: when you’re scrolling a list on the iPhone and you reach the beginning or end of it, the list bounces back and doesn’t just suddenly stop. This sudden stop that Opera Mini gives you makes it harder to figure out the end or beginning of a list. You have to watch the little black bar on the side to be sure that you reached the top or bottom. It just feels wrong. Another issue with scrolling: the speed of scrolling doesn’t decrease as smooth as you’re used to.

Another issue is the actual rendering of pages. Even if a site, like Flickr for example, has a mobile version which is build for the iPhone it gets broken into parts and doesn’t look anything close to the actual design. The pinch and zoom is there but only gives you a bird’s or ant’s eye view of a page. Anything in between? Nope. Also, double tapping doesn’t work reliably. Most of the time I accidentally ended up loading a link, for example, if you’re zooming in into a linked picture. Oh, and while we’re talking pictures: Due to the compression images have a tendency to look bad.

Looking at a page, like, say google.com, also not the best experience. The mobile site looks like crap (see above) and the normal view is too wide even for landscape view and you cannot zoom out (or in if you wanted to do that for whatever reason). Looking to browse a site that uses JavaScript? You have to be lucky, that it doesn’t require JS to do important stuff like navigation, etc.

One nice thing about Opera Mini is the idea of having this grid overview of pages you like, they call it “speed dial”. Much like Safari or Chrome have it on the desktop. I wonder why Apple hasn’t brought this to Mobile Safari. Another nicety: When you go back in history the previous page doesn’t get reloaded. It’s there just like you left it, instantly. Also, searching within pages. Good thing!

Are these little things enough to make Opera Mini worthwhile? In my opinion they don’t. It’s a nice idea to have an alternative browser to Safari and it might have opened the door to other browsers (that don’t just use the integrated WebKit functions). Then again, I doubt we’ll ever see Google Chrome for iPhone, but it’s a nice thought. And well, hell froze over once, with Apple approving this app. I guess they just got through because it’s not a web browser but a proxy browser. Oh and if Opera’s proxy server goes down, which just happened at this moment, you won’t be browsing anything.

All these things make me believe that Apple only waved it through to a) show everyone that their approval process isn’t really that strict and b) how bad the App Store apps would look if every piece of software got through. Especially the UI inconsistencies make me wonder how this app got approved. Apple’s human interface guidelines are well thought out and the Opera developers just didn’t seem to care.

My guess: in a short time everybody will have forgotten about this app, just like the desktop version of Opera, and we’ll look bad on it in a year or two, sitting on our veranda in the sunset, having a sip of the good stuff and philosophizing about this very day with some friends that have never heard about this browser and couldn’t care less.

I’ll leave you with a quote by @frankjonen: “You can make money with Opera Mini tho for dev work. Use it to show people how the mobile web looked in the pre iPhone era. :)”