Opera Mobile vs native browser on Nokia E72

I had a Nokia E72 for the last 3 months and I have used it on a daily basis as my main phone. Of course, this includes browsing. Since I spend quite a bit of time browsing and most of all I want it to be efficient and snappy, I tried the native browser first and what I assumed would be the best browser available for the E72 later: Opera Mobile.

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Speaking of crappy User-Agent strings

I am normally a fan of Opera Mini and I use it quite often on my V640i, but yesterday we stumbled on a very wierd string.

A Samsung SGH-E740 (on Device Anywhere, so you can probably try it yourself) has Opera Mini installed and the User-Agent string is Opera/8.01 (J2ME/MIDP; Opera Mini/1.1.7621/hifi/tmobile/uk; Motorola V3; en; U; ssr).

Now WHY is that “Motorola V3” string there? Surely this is not a Razr V3, surely Opera Mini aspires to be a better browser than the one pre-installed on the Razr V3, so WHY?

I don’t have a clue, of course.

PS: The X-OperaMini-Phone-Ua header is there and has the original User-Agent string.

ATAC Roma improves the services for mobile users

I can’t really say “I just received” as this e-mail is dated back June, 1st, still I think it’s very good news. My friends at 01design have officially launched the new services for mobile users for ATAC Roma. ATAC Roma is the company that takes care of all public transportation in Rome, quite a good example of how a service should be tailored for the mobile context.

I went to try to service, but apparently you need to have a subscription with ATAC Roma, which I don’t have. This sounds like a big limitation, as I’d be happy to be able to access news and updates even if I’m just a tourist. I hope this is just a limited time closed service and that it will be open to all.

ATAC used to have a WAP site developed on top of WURFL, it sounds like the mobile section of the services have worked out and they decided to go with a more complete service that includes updates, news and so on.

The site is optimized for Opera Mini. Again, too bad I could not test it. I will look for a test account and update, if possible.

Well done!

e-mails organized in threads

I remember when Opera initially launched the concept in its e-mail client that you did not really need folders to organize your e-mail, but that it was sufficient to group them.
Fairly recently Google reviewed the same concept and defined the labels and a very similar way of organizing your e-mails. Google certainly added a very powerful search engine, but the original concept is very much the same.

Being a Mac user, I have been using Apple’s Mail for a few years now. Mail.app has a standard a hybrid approach to e-mails, the standard folders are available, but since Spotlight became part of the OS, users are also able to create filters and organize e-mails in “dynamic folders“.

I have never been a fan of Opera’s approach and the same applies to Google’s approach and Apple’s dynamic folders.
I really like the threaded view, though. Both GMail and Mail.app offer this feature.
For my normal inbox and for a few folders I use the standard view with e-mails sorted by date descending.
For mailing lists I just love the threaded view. Here are two screenshots of the same mailing list:

And here is another screenshot of the same mailing list with a standard view:

When you read and contribute to a mailing list with a fair amount of traffic and different topics discussed, maybe with a lot of replies to the same topic, the threaded view lets you have e-mails organized very well and lets you follow a full thread even if other e-mails were sent for other threads in the same timeline.

While both Google’s and Apple’s e-mail clients are not exactly perfect when grouping e-mails, it still is very helpful and works smoothly in most cases. I have been using this feature for a couple of years now and liked it. I realized how I’m not used to it when last week I read my e-mails using a web client and found myself lost in the e-mails, losing track and having a hard time identifying the context as I was moving through the list of my e-mails, but were actually about different topics.
Going back to check old threads is also very easy when using this feature as you immediately get all the e-mails together.

Telefonica launches Opera browser

It must be clear to everyone that today I have more spare time. Meetings are done for today, all I need to do is go to eat and then I have a few hours free.

I took a chance to clear a bit of my backlog of things I wanted to post on the blog, then.

Via Marco Casario I found out the Telefónica Móviles has partenered with Opera to provide to their users a custom version of Opera and Opera Mini.
They are not the first ones and to me is another demonstration of the quality of the Opera browser and that a better user experience will lead more users on internet using their phone.

There’s a full Press release, of course: Telefónica selects Opera Mini and Opera Mobile to deliver the mobile Web.

Opera Mini 3.0 – review

I did not even have the time to test Opera Mini 3.0 Beta that the full release is ready.
I have felt bad for complaining about the HTTP headers and not even give a shot to the full features. So here comes a little review.

Installation was smooth. I downloaded the MIDlet and installed. During the installation the client checked my internet connection and automatically picked the best one. It also generated keys for security.

Test #1: HTTP headers
I visited my test site at http://t.wurfl.com/ to grab some headers. I STRONGLY suggest the download from WAP, because as Mike Rowehl pointed out, the default browser’s user-agent will be store in an HTTP header.
These are the custom headers:

  • X-OperaMini-Features: advanced, download, camera, folding, inputhints
  • X-OperaMini-Phone-UA: SonyEricssonW810i/R4EA Browser/NetFront/3.3 Profile/MIDP-2.0 Configuration/CLDC-1.1
  • X-OperaMini-Phone: SonyEricsson # W810i

Test #2: Photo Blog
I wanted to upload a test image. Entered the Photo Blog link from the main page, took a picture of a nice flower… And discovered that the only supported blog is Opera’s! What a bad surprise. Reading from Opera Mini’s site: Now you can take images with your phone camera and upload them to any of your blogs, forums or e-mail blog right from Opera Mini.
Looking at the screenshots it’s clear they are uploading to Opera’s blogsite, but I thought that was just an example. I could not find any preference in the settings menu.
Reading on Opera Watch, they say you can post to myspace or other blogs. I am sorry I really could not find how to do it!

Test #3: my blog
The page looks very good. On top there’s a link to subscribe to the feed (read more to know about feeds support). All my articles are well readable and the ability to scroll up and down quickly with left and right joystick makes it very usable. Scrolling is smooth.
Images are rescaled and respect the proportions from the original layout. Just like on my desktop I can click on an image and zoom. Initially it fits the screen (little bit of vertical scrolling on big images, but that’s OK) and then I can zoom more to see the real image. I can also download the image.
All the right column of the blog is moved on the bottom of the articles. So I first need to scroll all the articles and then reach the right column. Not perfect, but probably the only possible solution on a small screen. Going through the “label cloud” and previous posts list is OK considering the high number of links. Again the ability to scroll up and down of one page is very helpful.

Test #3 bis: Tom Hume’s blog
Tom Hume‘s blog has a left column with links and images and then the articles on the right column. I wanted to see how Opera Mini would handle it.
The approach is very smart as I see Tom’s picture, a couple of other links and then all the articles. Links to Flikr and previous posts have been skipped totally. I don’t know if this is a feature or a bug, but works very well. I think it’s a feature! 😀

Test #4: slashdot
Slashdot works smoothly. I would add “as expected”. It provides a CSS for handhelds and the content is reduced to the minimum. There’s a form to login and then the articles.
I personally don’t like the layout, you can’t really understand that the title are not part of the article as they are rendered as normal links. A bit of background color would have made it much better on Opera Mini, but I guess the CSS is made to work on any mobile browser.
Reading an article means also loading all the comments. It gets very long. I think slashdot should have made it more efficient for a mobile device. Again, not Opera’s fault!

Test #5: searching with Google
Smooth and effective. Works like a charm.
I followed some random links and all worked nicely.

Test #6: Gmail
I went on http://www.gmail.com and logged in pretending to be a desktop computer. A big alert was on top of each page reminding me that standard HTML was being used. A link to move to the advanced AJAX version was available. Clicking would simply reload the same page.
The entire site was barely usable. Each page started with the left column of gmail, so mailboxes and labels. No contacts. Then the e-mails. It was crowded and mostly hard to read. I guess the mixture of the standard HTML interface and the small screen caused this. To read emails I had to scroll down about 3 pages.

Test #6 bis: Gmail mobile
When logging on the standard gmail I tagged the “remember me on this computer”. When accessing http://m.gmail.com I was logged in automatically.
The layout was much cleaner and simpler, of course. Navigating around was pretty easy and fast, of course.
Should be noted that I could not make the accesskeys work. Is this something that I need to discover in the online documentation?
Lists of links were all folded. Clicking on the + sign would open the list and I could pick the desired link. Quite nice feature. I am not convinced this is a usability advantage, but was nice to see it. Interesting. I will need more time using it to give a final judgment on this.

Text #7: RSS feeds
I tested my blog’s feed, of course. Clicking on the feed (always presented as the first link on top of the page) loads a page where you can see a first link that says “subscribe” and below the contents of the feed.
Subscribing brings you to the Feeds page. Feeds can be sorted alphabetically or by time.
In the Feeds page you see your subscriptions with a tiny icon, a title, and the number of unread news. Once you visit a feed all news are marked as read.

Overall results
The general user-experience is very good. I browsed a lot of sites and I could access all the information I needed very easily.
It is clear that some sites are more friendly and some others are harder to render.
No objects such as flash were rendered by the browser, but that’s OK too.
Browsing is fast and smooth and I really, really like the ability to scroll up and down quickly. Ebay is really ugly, but works. PlayDeep, an e-commerce site, works and I could place an order. Too bad that all the simple javascript in the page did not work at all. Every time a javascript event was supposed to happen I saw a big error message and the phone vibrated.
Sites that are providing a good CSS for handhelds clearly work better than other sites so thumbs up for the authors that took the time to draw a good stylesheet for small devices.
Memory does not seem to be an issue as it used to happen with old WAP browsers and sometimes still happens with some modern browsers.
Pop-up windows are managed OK. It is probably not clear to the user the difference between a normal link and a pop-up, but I also don’t see much advantage in notifying it as the browser only shows one page at a time.
I did not like that when picking something from a list (select element), the list is shown as a new page and when I pick the element the browser goes back to the web page. I would have liked the standard dropdown list like in all browsers. This is a feature that has also been present in the Openwave browsers for years. According to openwave this is a usability feature that helps the user pick the desired element more easily. I personally don’t like it and always feel strange when I click on a list and see an effect similar to opening a new page.

As an end-user I like the ability to automatically detect the best connection, but as a geek I would have liked to have a menu in the settings to change it and not a button to re-test. I want to be in control. 🙂
When loading pages a tag “Processing” appears at the bottom and then changes into “Loading” and shows the KB that are being downloaded. I know that “Processing” means that the Opera Mini-Proxy is downloading, analyzing and adapting the page, but it’s odd to see it on the client. It feels like the client is processing the page before having downloaded it. Just a small comment, this does NOT mean that the client is bad! Not at all!

Last thing is I would like to know what the “features” in the HTTP header are. I can guess that “camera” means I can take picutes and that download means I can download images. Is DRM supported? “inputhints” means that my phone supports T9 or does it mean that sites can use the format attribute? “advanced” means what?

How I did it
Tested with a Sony Ericsson W810i, running Opera Mini 3.0.
Mobile Operator is TIM, in Italy and using EDGE connectivity.
I will check my next bill to see how much this test costed me. Unfortunately the online service provided by TIM does not provide the detailed traffic.

Download from web: http://www.operamini.com/
Strongly suggested wireless download: http://mini.opera.com/

Want to see how it will look on your mobile? Look at the Opera Mini simulator.

Other Reviews:
Dan Appelquist: New Opera Mini Integrates Photo Blogging
Dominique Hazaël-Massieux: Off-line browsing on a mobile device
Helicoid’s mmm: Opera Mini 3
Mike Rowehl: Bloglines Mobile and Opera Mini 3

Opera Mini 3.0 Beta 2 is out

I meant to post this yesterday, but then Blogger had some problems and did not log me in. Now everything is ok, so here’s the post.

I read that Opera Mini 3.0 Beta 2 was out. I was just in the process of downloading and testing. I clicked on the ChangeLog page to discover the new features and fixes.

To my suprised I discovered that eventually Opera decided to re-introduce a parameter to recognize the device it’s running on. This was a hot topic on wmlprogramming as more than one developers and service providers did not know how to deliver contents to their users (don’t think only about ringtones, also consider images rescaled to best fit the screen, for example).
Users download and install Opera Mini because they want a better experience on WAP (and Mobile Web), developers work hard on their mobile sites to provide an optimized experience, but with the old Opera Mini this was not possible. This was certainly an issue.
From the service providers’ point of view it was a problem because they could not recognize the device as all were identified with the very same user-agent.
From the browser’s point of view it was a problem as Opera Mini should be able to manage the download, store it and manage the DRM if implemented. Not an easy issue.

I exchanged a few e-mails with my friends at Opera and they understood the problem. Talking is always good.

So Opera Mini 3.0 Beta 2 comes with a solution. Reading from the changelog:
# Added three new request headers, X-OperaMini-Phone, X-OperaMini-Phone-UA and X-OperaMini-Features

But wait… Let me think… Haven’t I seen this before? Something similar… Oh, YES! MS IEMobile! Now I remember! If you don’t, check out this other article I wrote before, new MS IEMobile user-agents.

I know Opera is for the open standards and is one of the most active companies in the W3C, but… this does not solve the problem for developers! Trying to read Opera’s mind in 3 points:

  • Opera is for open standards
  • Opera wants to be nice to developers
  • Opera wants sites to provide the same page to their browser as if it was a web browser and then the client will adapt

For these reasons they kept the user-agent unique for all devices, but added extra HTTP headers (respecting the standard, of course!). Nevertheless, this requires additional work from site developers aimed only at Opera Mini.

What are developers supposed to do? Install Opera Mini on EVERY device and check how the HTTP headers change to discover which device it is?

There MUST be a better solution.
A unified solution among all browser developers should be taken. I would suggest a solution around WURFL, of course, but if this is not possible, well, then even UAProf would be better.