Updated on 10/20/08 at 4:10 PM PT with a few more details.

Opera Mobile 9.5 beta
Symbian UIQ owners can now try out Opera browser on their phones. (Credit: CNET)

There's been a lot of activity this week in the world of mobile browsers. On Friday, Mozilla introduced an alpha build for Fennec, the very-much-in-development mobile browser that will grow up to become Firefox for Mobile. Monday's news brings Opera Software's release of its most recent beta for the Opera Mobile browser. It's the second beta for Windows Mobile phones, and the first beta compatible with the Symbian UIQ platform. (At this point, the build only supports touchscreen models.)

We hear that Opera has also released a developer (alpha) version for Symbian Series 60 phones that is available with the updated Opera Widgets SDK. The fact that it's packaged for developers hints that it's still riddled with bugs.

The changes found in Opera Mobile 9.51 beta 2 are few, but distinct--the addition of Opera Widgets, speedier page loading, and a package of developer tools that includes the Opera Dragonfly debugger.

Of the three additions, Opera Widgets is the one that most directly affects the mobile browsing crowd. The new beta installs five widgets on Windows Mobile and UIQ phones. There's Twitter, AccuWeather, a clock, Shopping List, and Bubbles, a colorful Tetris-like game. If you have a Series 60 phone, you get all of the above except Twitter.

In order to download widgets onto the phone, Opera has added a shortcut button that takes you to the Widgets Web page and presents a list of widgets compatible with your platform. Selecting the widget will download it over the air.

Although Opera is the first out of the gate implementing its version of extensions, add-ons will also be at the core of Mozilla Fennec, the mobile build of Firefox that's in development for Windows Mobile and Symbian phones. The importance of add-ons, overall speed, Flash support, and general navigability cannot be overstated in the simmering contest among Opera, Firefox, and newcomer Skyfire (which is based off Firefox.)

Twitter widget for Opera Mobile 9.5 beta
The Twitter widget is one of five preloaded in the new beta build. (Credit: Opera Software)

Developers' bag of tricks

The new Opera Mobile beta also hands independent widget developers a goody bag in the form of the updated Widgets Software Developer Kit, or SDK. This version of the SDK bundles in the Dragonfly debugger and a new widget manager. Together, these tools will help developers pick through bugs in JavaScript, CSS, and DOM code on an actual mobile phone, not just on a desktop emulator. Developers for Windows Mobile and both Symbian platforms can use the updated Widget SDK.

If new tools to ease the way for developers aren't enough incentive to create useful, interactive widgets, Opera hopes its X-Widget Challenge is. From now until November 23, the final deadline, Opera will be awarding weekly prizes. The breakdown of the $10,000 purse for the winning designs will award $5,000 for first prize, $2,000 for second, $1,000 for third, with the additional $2,000 distributed among weekly winner and the first 20 qualified entrants. We wouldn't be surprised if many submissions are the mobile versions of existing desktop widgets, such as the Google Toolbar or Pandora Radio.

Still so much to do

When Opera Mobile 9.5 beta 1 came out in July for Windows Mobile Pocket PCs, Opera promised that future releases would branch out to languages other than English. There was also a bug that required refreshing pages after switching between mobile and full-screen modes, and difficulties typing into some phones with custom keyboards or input methods (T9 is one example of an input method.) As far as we know, this beta release has addressed at least some of these bugs.

While the beta does integrate Opera Widgets and introduces Opera Mobile 9.5 to Symbian UIQ phones, Opera has promised to add Google Gears and Opera Link support before the final release. Opera Link, a feature for synchronizing bookmarks on the server-side among all Opera browsers, has been present in the Opera Mini browser for Java-based phones for more than a year.

You can download Opera Mobile 9.5 beta 1 for Symbian UIQ phones and the second beta for Windows Mobile phones straight from CNET Download.com, and let us know what you think with your own review.

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.