On a desktop computer, your choice of browser says a lot. Using the copy of Microsoft Internet Explorer that came with your PC screams "novice"—even though recent versions of IE are much improved, the program is still a symbol of an Internet that was slow, buggy, and insecure. Switching to Chrome or Firefox or Safari says you're Web savvy, care about speed and security, and want complex web apps to perform at their best.
On the iPhone, you have no such choice of browser. The device comes with a mobile version of Apple's Safari, and that's it. Pretty much everyone is fine with that—it's a functional and minimalist app that does an amazing job of squeezing full Web pages onto the iPhone's 3.5-inch screen.
Now Opera Software, a Norwegian company that has long been an also-ran in the desktop browser wars (its market share is less than 3 percent), is trying to inject some competition in the mobile space. This week, Opera submitted a mobile version of its browser to the iTunes App Store—and posted a giant clock ticking away the seconds until Apple's clerks decide to accept or reject it. Why the cheekiness? Apple has rules prohibiting apps that "duplicate the functionality" of the iPhone's core features, leading it to reject apps that have to do with podcasting and e-mail. Most infamously, Apple rejected a Google Voice app last July, prompting an official inquiry by the FCC. It was one of Apple's worst P.R. moments of 2009.
Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner, Opera's cofounder, visited NEWSWEEK's offices in New York last week to show off the Opera Mini app. It's impressive. Chiefly, it's faster than Mobile Safari—sort of. Two iPhones laid out side by side, one with Opera and one with Safari, will indeed show you that Opera loads Web pages faster, especially on image-heavy pages like Flickr. But a big caveat is that this is really only true when the phones are operating on AT&T's slow EDGE network. The phones Opera brought to NEWSWEEK had been adjusted to not connect to a 3G signal. Opera Mini's speed advantage shrinks on 3G, and all but disappears when you find a wireless Internet network.
Still, Opera for the iPhone offers a few new features—my favorite was the ability to search for text within a Web page, a rudimentary thing on a desktop browser—and reminds the Apple faithful that competition is almost always a good thing. Even coders behind great software like mobile Safari get complacent when no one's pushing them.
For Apple, the smart play by far is to approve the app. Even if Opera Mini is better software, Safari is still a great browser with no major flaws, making people relatively unlikely to switch. Whatever small market share Apple risks losing is surely less important than the negative publicity that would come from stomping Opera down, and rekindling chatter—not to mention a federal inquiry—about Apple's refusal to approve the Google Voice app.