Does Opera outperform iPhone's Safari browser?

More mobile users browsed with Opera in May than with any other mobile browser, says StatCount. But how quirky is the math?

Opera's 'browser' takes the clear lead. Unless you count Safari from the iPod Touch.

The problem with statistics is that it's too easy to jigger data down to numbers that prove in the end how quickly the exercise can resemble art as much as science. Take the latest stats regarding Opera's mobile performance, for instance. StatCounter's Tuesday graph showed proof of Opera's climb above the iPhone's Safari browser for the month of May.

Yet the claim that "Opera took 24.6 percent of the worldwide market compared to 22.3 percent for iPhone" is quickly followed by the admission that one only needs to calculate page views from the iPod Touch for mobile Safari to bypass Opera's lead. Web surfing from the Touch alone represents 14.9 percent of May's mobile browsing, according to StatCounter. Add it to iPhone's browser score and Safari's 37.2 percent overall market share quickly outpaces Opera's not-quite-25 percent.

The deeper you dive, the murkier it gets. What StatCounter didn't make clear in this report, and what is absolutely essential to gauging the popularity of one browser solution over another, is which Opera browser StatCounter counted. Was it Opera Mini, the build for Java phones? Or Opera Mobile, which works with Windows Mobile and Symbian platforms? Or was it both? If the final count indeed includes page views from all the browsers powered by Opera Software, then it could also cover white labeled browsing from a number of Archos personal media players and from the Nintendo DSI. If it doesn't, should it?

Even Opera isn't totally certain what StatCounter's methodology sucks in, though a spokesperson did tell CNET that the company puts a lot of faith into StatCounter's figures. A representative at StatCounter was not immediately available for comment.

Opera versus Safari, or iPhone versus everything else?

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You might also wonder if this statistical volley between Opera and Safari faithfully compares apples to apples, or if it is in effect one more measure that pits the iPhone and iPod Touch against other handsets. After all, iPhone accounts for 10 percent global smartphone market share while Symbian phones alone hold nearly 50 percent of the rest. By all logic, iPhone's Safari shouldn't come close to generating the greater-than-20 percent of the world's mobile traffic StatCounter says it has.

And yet, since Apple has shut out all browsing competition on the iPhone, I argue that the browser's seeming popularity is more a testament to the hardware's browsing-friendliness than it is to the browsing vehicle itself. In other words, it appears that more people browse more often on the iPhone than they do from other mobile phones. Would we see similar results were Nokia to lock out third-party browsers, too? Or perhaps Apple's minimalistic monopolistic limited approach to handsets and mobile browsers is one key to Safari's success. The irony, of course, is that Apple isn't ideologically selling its browser the way Opera is. It's selling devices, plus brand confidence and Apple's "cool factor" appeal.

So, does all this add up to a hollow numbers victory for Opera?

Not necessarily. Whether Opera or iPhone's Safari (plus iPod Touch) is truly in the lead, the mobile browser's (or browsers') numbers are up. Following StatCounter's stats, Opera's mobile browser almost fully recovered in May from a steady three percent decline since January to April 2009. In January, StatCounter called Opera out at 24.69 percent of the mobile browsing market, 0.05 percent higher than it is this month. However the usage numbers shake out this month, that turnaround, at least, is something Opera can unquestioningly be proud of.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.