Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Do Not Submit This Entry To Slashdot!

Opera is a company that makes browsers like Netscape or Internet Explorer. It is based in Norway and ships its product, also called Opera, on multiple platforms. It is extremely standards compliant to things like HTML, XHTML, DOM, DOM2 and CSS.

Recently Opera has released a version of its browsers for phones and other boxes with very small screens. To solve the problem of showing big pages on small screens, Opera did not decide to interpret only a limited set of tags, like iMode did, or throw HTML out alltogether and start over, like WAP. Opera worked on stacking the page: taking the layout of the page and, through smart guesses, turn a page into one long column suitable for viewing on a phone or PDA -- with much scrolling. Here is an example of stacking with News.com.

Opera recently released a version of this browser for Series 60 phones. I happen to have two of them right now, so I downloaded it and did some testing on pages I thought might be interesting.


CNN's front page in stacked view.

However, you can also set the browser to a more normal mode, where it doesn't stack the page. You then have to also scroll from left to right besides from top to bottom, to see a whole page.

Detail of CNN's front page in normal view.

So you get the idea.

Next I tried it with LJ.


http://www.livejournal.com/~fj in stacked view.

But can I post?

Comments posting page in LiveJournal in stacked view.

Ok, so I lose all the little comments-posting icons. However, the whole page is there, with all menus and options, and quite useable, apart from the very cumbersome text-entry. In fact, I have already replied to a comment this way.

I then switched the browser to normal mode, in which a page is displayed without the stacking algorithm. Since a normal page is so big and a phone screen is so small, you do have to scroll from left to right a lot to see the whole page. Here's that same comments page:


The Comments posting form in normal view. First image is the top left of the page, second is an area on the form close to the main text-entry area.

So how does my own page look in normal mode? I skipped to my Friends page and noticed something interesting: the Opera phone browser understands and honors CSS stylesheets as best as it can when it is viewing a page in normal mode. I have a style-sheet of my own which I call it "Brand FJ!!", I use it on my own site, resumes, my LJ, etc., and it is all derived from this one set of files on exonome. If I change any of those style-files, all my other stuff changes with it, consistently. My style-sheet indulges my taste for crazy small fonts with lots of whitespace around and between the lines, and I do some gray boxes around certain pieces of text. My headlines are underlined. And Opera complies.


My LJ Friends page in normal mode.

Not the gray text for the mood, just like it renders on a real browser. The gray background for the date. The line under my name.

What does this tell me? Exclusive slimmed-down browsers (WAP, AvantGo) on phones with large color screens or PDAs is not a compelling proposition, if it ever even was. Now very few phones with large screens have the memory to run this browser, it is hefty. But that is a question of time and browsers will catch up, and this browser will then also get better -- it already does cookies, https, and JavaScript, although I do not know how well. My 3650 does just fine with it. Smoothly, nice. Note that those words underneat every screen, 'Options', and 'Stop', are actually not normally visible when browsing in full screen mode as I was, giving the reader even more room. They just became visible in the process of taking a screenshot.

Opera isn't free, but it isn't expensive, and if you buy a phone that can handle it you are enough of a gadgeteer you'll shell out the money just to never be bored in a queue, waiting room, ticket line, ever again. I'd like to point out that, in my opinion, the Nokia screens seem optimized for rendering beautiful skin tones -- not surprising for camera phones which were expected to take many snapshots of humans having fun. (In fact, I have set up a POP3 mailbox on the phone exclusively to read the mail from, uh, certain Yahoo groups I am subsrcibed to. I always have something new to download during boring meetings, and GPRS is no slouch.)

Now WAP is more than just browsing tiny pages these days, there are many push and messaging media types part of the standard. However, as far as browsing goes, this is where it will go. And phone manufactureres have two choices: license Opera, or match the functionality.