Breaking down the walled gardens ..

Good article from the WSJ

source: Wall street journal

Breaking Down the Walls Of Phones’ Web Gardens

By LI YUAN

August 2, 2007; Page B1

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

Chuck Halverson, a banker in Minneapolis, pays AT&T Inc. $20 a month on top of his calling fee so that he can surf the Internet from his cellphone. But he doesn’t use the browser that came loaded on the AT&T phone because it limits the sites he can visit.

Instead, he downloaded another program, Opera Mini, that lets him easily go to almost any Web site he wants.

“The experience should be the same no matter if you’re on a mobile phone, a laptop or a desktop,” he says. “You want it to be universal.”

Ever since wireless companies began offering Internet services on cellphones, users have shared a similar complaint, largely because the companies want to control which sites their customers visit. Phones come with browsers designed to go mainly to the Web sites the carriers chose — usually the ones they have revenue-sharing deals with. It is possible to go to sites outside this “walled garden,” but the experience is so slow and cumbersome that most users don’t try. And some of those outside Web sites won’t work with the carrier-approved browsers.

[photo]

The Web as seen via Opera Mini

But now those walls are beginning to break down, in a development that harkens back to America Online’s failed attempt to limit its Internet subscribers’ surfing in the 1990s. “Having a Web browser and the ability to browse the open Internet on your mobile phone will be a given in the future,” says Tony Cripps, an analyst at research firm Ovum in London. “It’s a capability that eventually people would expect to be there, just like text messaging and camera.”

Many new browsers to ease surfing on the Web are being developed, and some wireless carriers have begun opening up Internet use for customers.

Since it was launched in January 2006, more than 15 million cellphone users around the world have downloaded the Opera Mini browser, which is available for free and usable on most cellphones. Early versions of the Opera Mini, developed by Opera Software ASA in Norway, display Web pages in a single column, which works well on cellphones with small screens. The latest version shows Web sites in full-page views that are even more similar to the look on a PC.

Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile International has preloaded Opera Mini into 35 cellphones that are available in nine European markets. T-Mobile expects that by providing its customers better browsing experience, more people will pay to access the Internet on their cellphones.

The walled-garden approach “didn’t work with AOL,” says Ingo Schneider, vice president at T-Mobile International. “It’s not going to work in mobile either.”

Apple Inc.’s iPhone, sold by AT&T, displays Web pages the way they appear on the wired Internet, with a zoom-in, zoom-out feature that allows users to read text and enlarge photos. A TV ad for the iPhone says the Safari browser provides “not a watered-down version of the Internet, or the mobile version of the Internet…It’s just the Internet on your phone.”

Other forces are also opening the wireless Internet. Rules approved Tuesday by the Federal Communications Commission for its coming auction of radio spectrum set aside a portion of those airwaves for wireless networks that allow customers to use any mobile device, not just those approved by the network owner. That is expected to encourage the spread of devices that are able to surf the entire Internet, as well as other innovations.

But these new networks will take years to build and require billions of dollars of investment. For now advanced browsers are the best route to the wide-open Internet. However, these browsers on their own can’t mimic the PC experience completely on cellphones. While the new browsers can take users to any site, handsets can’t download music and video unless those features are supported by the wireless carriers. And, they don’t work on all cellphones — for instance, Opera Mini can’t be used on Verizon Communications Inc. cellphones.

Among the technology companies developing products similar to the Opera Mini, Microsoft Corp. is working on a browser called “Deep Fish,” which, its Web site says, can display content in a view that is closer to the desktop experience. Deep Fish, like many of the browsers in development by various companies, isn’t yet available to consumers. The browser is being tested on smartphones supported by the Windows Mobile operating system. Microsoft says the software is not tied to Windows Mobile and could possibly be used on other phones. The company hasn’t disclosed when the browser will be available to the market and if it will be free for download.

The growing sophistication of these browsers marks the latest step in the evolution of wireless Web surfing technology. Initially carriers and media companies hired software engineers to reconfigure Web pages to fit into the small screen of cellphones with few photos and images. A special domain name “.mobi” was created last year in hopes that a parallel World Wide Web will be built just for cellphones. But the focus is shifting to developing browsers that can bring the regular Internet experience to cellphones without the need to upgrade to expensive handsets or recreate Web pages just for cellphones.

Smaller companies also have gotten into the game. Novarra Inc. is working directly with carriers to improve the limited browsers that have been preloaded into handsets.

The more advanced browsers also reduce the time it takes for wireless devices to load Web pages. This is possible because the new generation of mobile browsers rely on servers rather than the device itself. The Opera Mini, for example, is able to display a Web page on a wireless device with only 10% to 20% of the bits needed to display the same page on a PC. Consumers using it can surf faster than with a dial-up Internet connection on a PC.

“My browsing tends to be on my phone,” says Ryan Octavianus, a 22-year-old college student in Bandung, Indonesia. He says it takes about three to six seconds to load a photo-laden Web page from social-networking site Friendster on his Nokia cellphone using the Opera Mini — much faster than the 30 seconds it takes on his PC at home.

Opera Software, which also develops Web browsers for PCs and the Nintendo Wii game console, makes money on Opera Mini by licensing it to handset makers and wireless carriers, and sharing advertising revenue with Yahoo Inc., which has a search box on the Mini’s homepage. The company is focusing for now on getting as many users as possible, says Chief Executive Jon S. von Tetzchner. Analysts believe Opera is hoping that its browser’s popularity will eventually persuade more operators and handset makers to license its product.

Mr. von Tetzchner says technology advancement in mobile Internet will have a particularly big impact in developing countries, where many people’s only option to go online is through their cellphones. For example, roughly 400,000 people in Bangladesh use Opera Mini for Web browsing, according to the country’s largest cellphone operator GrameenPhone Ltd. — in contrast, only 370,000 Bangladeshi had wired Internet service as of June, according to Internet World Stats, a site that tracks global Internet usage.