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Flash Goes Mobile

Opera’s latest browser tries to improve the mobile Internet experience with Flash.

No matter how much money you spend on a cell phone, the Web you see on its small screen isn’t quite the same as the one you view on a laptop. Some features often can’t run on mobile-phone Web browsers. But the latest version of Opera Mobile could bring more of the Web to your mobile world. Capable of displaying full Flash media content, Opera Mobile version 9.5 makes it possible to use cell phones and handheld computers to view online animations and movies.

Web to go: A new mobile browser has been launched that can display full Flash media content. This makes it possible for users to view far more of the Web on a mobile phone than they could previously.

Stripped-down versions of the Web have been offered to mobile users in the past. But these have been widely viewed as flops, says Jon von Tetzchner, CEO of Opera Software, based in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. “There is only one Web, and that’s what the end user wants,” he says.

Recently, there have been improvements in the design of mobile browsers and their user interfaces in an effort to deliver a more complete Web-browsing experience via mobile devices. But even the swanky browser in Apple’s iPhone doesn’t support Flash, which puts a limit on the content that users can access with the device.

“A full version of Flash inside the browser makes it possible for users to view the normal versions of video-based websites like YouTube or DailyMotion,” says Ian Fogg, research director with London-based analyst firm Jupiter Research.

Some phones offer a lightweight version, called Flash Lite–which is how iPhone users are able to access YouTube–but it has reduced sound and video quality, and only a small minority of devices offer it.

Opera Software was spun out of the Norwegian telecom company Telenor in 1995 and is famed for concentrating almost exclusively on mobile browsing. In addition to offering Flash, the company claims that its latest version can run 2.5 times faster than Microsoft’s mobile browser. “Speed is our focus,” says von Tetzchner. It is something that the company is very proud of, and it’s largely due to optimizing the code so that it runs more efficiently on the limited processing resources of a mobile device, he says.

Users of the new browser will also find tabbed browsing (which allows the user to open multiple Web pages at the same time without launching multiple browser windows) and additional mobile features, such as the ability to easily send a Web link to someone as a text message. “There are a lot of improvements,” says von Tetzchner. But it’s still not the full Web, because there are still applications that Opera does not support, such as Windows Media. But eventually, it will all be supported, von Tetzchner says.

Despite the advantages of Opera Mobile, the company faces significant competition. Historically, Opera’s main revenues have come from device manufacturers such as Nokia and Sony Ericsson, which offer the browser on their phones as preinstalled software. “But this model of supplying to the device markets is coming under pressure,” says Fogg.

Increasingly, companies like Nokia are turning to open source engines, such as WebKit–the engine behind the browser on Nokia’s N-Series devices and iPhones. Similarly, Google’s Android platform has been heralded as the software that will bring the “desktop” experience to the mobile Web user, when it eventually comes. But von Tetzchner is pragmatic about it. “There’s always going to be competition,” he says.

In the meantime, having Flash on your phone may not be all it’s cracked up to be. It may give you access to your favorite video websites, but only if the phone’s processor and hardware are fast enough to cope. “Often they are not,” says Fogg. “This may be one reason that the iPhone does not yet have Flash support.”