Vodafone, Opera push mobile Internet in emerging markets

Vodafone will embed a customized version of Opera's Mini 5 browser on 20 phones

Vodafone is working with Opera Software to embed the company's Mini 5 browser on 20 low-cost phones designed for emerging markets.

The phones and browser will first be rolled out in India, South Africa, Turkey, Tanzania and Egypt. Other markets are expected to follow in the near future, Vodafone said.

Most of the phones that will come with the browser embedded are Vodafone branded products, but there are also some devices from Samsung and LG, according to a Vodafone spokesman, who wasn't able to provide more detail on the individual models.

Also, owners of over 250 GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) and Java-capable handsets will be able to download the browser, according to Vodafone. The browser lets Vodafone transform even basic handsets into very capable Internet browsing devices, it said.

The browser has been customized with support for widgets based on a specification from the Joint Innovation Lab, which was co-founded by Vodafone.

A key feature of Opera Mini 5 is its ability compress data, which means users in emerging markets will pay less for data and can still get Internet access under "more challenging [network] conditions," according to Vodafone. Opera Mini 5 uses a proxy server to compress and reformat Web pages before they are transmitted to the phone.

Vodafone isn't the only company that has set its sights on bringing mobile Internet access to subscribers in emerging markets. On March 26, Nokia acquired Novarra, which has worked with Vodafone UK, for an undisclosed sum. Novarra's technology compresses and reformats Web sites for phones that can't display them in their native form.

Last year, Nokia also launched Life Tools, which includes agriculture-related and educational services and is also aimed at emerging markets.

The battle for the browser is an important one. Browsing is usually the first step when subscribers start using mobile data, according to Paolo Pescatore, analyst at CCS Insight. The browser can then be used by the operator or the handset manufacturer as a gateway to its other services, he said.

Vodafone has a number of applications in development. They will, for example, help users find a job, buy and sell services, learn foreign languages, as well as getting access to e-mail and Internet applications such as Facebook, according to Vodafone.

For many users in emerging markets this will be the first time they get access to the Internet, according to Jonathan Arber, senior research analyst at IDC. Currently, many of the devices used in emerging markets are too basic to support browsing. However, that is poised to change over the next 18 to 24 months, and the operators and phone manufactures want to be ready, Arber said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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