Mobile Web in developing countries:

The ability to have a modern web browser on almost any kind of device is bringing a change to the way people view the web. No longer are users tied to the laboratory at school, the desk at work, or the computer at home. Even opening a laptop in a cybercafe is just one of many options for using the services available on the web, while you are on the go.

Opera Software develops browsers for perhaps the widest range of platforms of any browser manufacturer. The desktop browser that is released on 6 platforms simultaneously shares the same codebase with versions for various mobile devices running Symbian series 60, 80, 90, UIQ, P2K, EZX, BREW, Linux in various flavours, and two different forms of "Windows Mobile". Opera is also available on gaing platforms and in various other embedded device platforms. In addition, essentially the same browser is made available through Opera Mini to hundreds of millions of deployed handsets running Java midlets.

At the same time, the web itself is developing. The rise of Ajax, the slow but steady progress towards implementing standards both in tools and in content, and the maturing of people's relationship to the web are bringing changes to what people expect. One of the keys to the way we will use the web tomorrow is services. Not necessarily "Web Services" built on SOAP and complex messaging systems with powerful description languages to determine how to interact with them, although those also have their place. But many services users want are simple, and are being built today as lightweight Ajax applications.

How do these two trends intersect? On the one hand, even a simple Ajax application represents an increase in processing needs over the basic web services of a decade ago, yet the handsets and devices people are now trying to use to access those services don't offer the same increase in processing power. But Moore's law has held, giving desktop users devices that are orders of magnitude more powerful, and tempting designers and application developers into constructing ever more powerful, but resource-hungry, applications.

Clearly, the limits imposed by mobile (and other low-powered) devices should have a major impact on the way people create content for the web. At the simple level, there is a stronger motivation to design with standards-compliance in mind. There is far more diversity in mobile browsers than we see in browsers designed for desktop machines, and the one thing all browsers have in common is sometimes imperfect but steadily increasing support for standards.

In the part of the market that deals with little devices, this becomes important. In order to fit more power to do useful things for users into the same amount of hardware, the best thing to get rid of is the large amount of code that is currently used for patching up the kind of tag-soup that characterises much of the traditional web, often designed to really work on just one browser with perhaps a nod to testing on some other system. As the mobile web grows in size and usage, we can expect to see this trend continue. Indeed, traditional WAP sites, while hardly perfect, often show a much better level of standards conformance (and of testing) than the web at large.

We see these trends of a diversifying market (a wider range of platforms than ever before trying to access the same web) and an increasing maturity in the demand for services tailored to a user leading towards a better understanding of the value that Web standards can provide, not just to the mobile web but to the web at large of which mobile is just one integral part. This applies not just to users, who want to access their train schedules, the words to the song that other kids at school are singing, two key facts for the meeting they are going to, or a review of the nearby café, cleaning service, or tailor.

The growth of web standards as the basis of a services platform also offers a great deal to service providers. For those who are experts in developing computer systems, the difference between programming a back end and cross-platform user interface in C++ or Java, and developing a simple set of web applications based on a common library and the relatively straightforward markup languages used on the web is one of efficiency in providing portability. But for a whole new workforce, the difference between learning to program web-based systems and learning to program in the more traditional frameworks of application development is the difference between a job that can be achieved at a price where the tailor can afford it, and one which is only available to the large corporations who can afford to maintain full-time programmers or highly-priced application developers.

Systems like Opera Platform, or Opera Widgets, are not going to put large system integrators out of business any time soon. They will not replace the demand for skilled developers working on large-scale projects. But they do provide a platform for the lightweight and easy-to-develop services that can be offered to users all over the world, by businesses and organisations from all over the world.

Building the next "near monopoly" web business, as Amazon or Google are sometimes (incorrectly) considered, depends on having a business model and a product that supports it as much as it depends on having a back-end system built to manage the world's data. But building a viable business, supporting an important community project, or even just improving communication between a spread-out family or group of friends often relies on a simple but effective base for building.

Finally, but importantly, in the developing world, we see a relatively large proportion of mobile web browsing. For various reasons it seems that the browser someone acquires in the "developing" world comes on a smaller device than one in the "developed" world. Some basic ones are to do with price and convenience.

North Americans are stereotypically spending time driving from a job to a house, at each of which they have a low-cost broadband connection, and don't see the point in having a small device to browse the web in their few spare mobile moments. On the other hand, In many other parts of the world public transport is a place where mobile browsing makes sense, as people spend a significant amount of time on trains or buses where even a newspaper is too large to read. In Russia, as an example, for the vast majority of the population internet access is still expensive time-charged dial-up, making an option like Opera mini with its data compression an attractive alternative. The penetration of desktop PCs is also lower in the developing world, and mobile data networks are the only reliable networks in some places.

Indeed Opera mini has been a major success in developing markets around the world, from Russia and Poland to Bangladesh and Nigeria, due to meeting the requirements of full web access on a relatively cheap and readily available platform (most feature phones are capable of running mini today).

To conclude, the mobile web is becoming an affordable and familiar system throughout the world. It is also providing an affordable marketplace, or space for development. It is by its nature a force to promote the use of standards on the web, which leads to a virtuous cycle of browsers offering more standards support but less error-correction, and developers making greater use of standards to provide better services for users, which allows them to offer more to service providers.

The role of the developing world as a source of "raw materials" (in the case of the software industry, the intellectual capital and human resources to build software) is well known. But the developing world is also an area where use of the mobile web is prominent, and we can expect to see initiatives in many areas coming from this nexus and spreading to the web at large. An important part of this is the avilability of powerful browsers on relatively simple and very diverse, hardware providing a common base for a wide range of use cases.