What Skyfire's Symbian beta means for Opera

What Skyfire's closed beta for Symbian S60 phones means in the battle over your cell phone's browser--especially to Opera.


Editors' note: Since this article published, Skyfire has offered the first hundred CNET readers immediate access to Skyfire's Symbian beta program. (Note: Only U.S. phones at this time.) Enter the promo code CNET100 in the sign-up page. Once you have signed up for the Skyfire Symbian Beta with the beta code, an SMS message will be sent to your mobile phone prompting you to create a password. Once you enter a password, you will be presented with a download link.

On Thursday, mobile browser start-up Skyfire announced the opening of a private beta for the Symbian Series 60 (S60) platform--nearly a week after a Symbian users Web site busted the news.

Skyfire is positioned as a resource-light Web browser that relies on Web servers to deliver a desktop browsing experience. I covered Skyfire soon after its initial Windows Mobile release and agree that it has a nice design and good potential; however, with rendering and crashing issues, it's not nearly ready for open beta. That's too bad because adding an identical build for Symbian means that Skyfire has two platforms in private beta with some tall performance hurdles to leap.

Skyfire comes to Nokia
Skyfire will debut on 10 Nokia handsets, including the high-end N95 and E71. (Credit: Skyfire Labs)

Going global (and taking on Opera)
Skyfire's Symbian beta program is the mobile browser's second platform, and its entree into the European market, where it will be rolling out later this year. This move improves Skyfire's competitive position against Opera Mobile, whose release of a free version 9.5 beta for Symbian is also scheduled for "the near future."

Opera Mini, Opera Software's build for Java phones and BlackBerry, has pretty much dominated alternative browsers in Europe, but Skyfire could destabilize that position. As a direct competitor to Opera Mobile 8.65, which sells for $24, Skyfire's free beta brings a few advantages to the table. It's true that Opera Mobile 9.5 beta is also currently offered for free, but with its Symbian build also in development, there could be an interesting battle over Symbian owners.

Pricing isn't the only point of comparison between Opera and Skyfire. Opera wants to bring Symbian owners the "authentic" desktop experience through a rich client and Skyfire will attempt to do so by pulling data from its servers. That makes Skyfire lighter on system resources, but it won't have as many search and linking capabilities out of the gate as Opera Mobile 9.5 beta, which integrated some tricks from the desktop browser. Conversely, Opera's cell phone browsers verge on cluttered, so there's a benefit to Skyfire's pared-down look.

In addition, Skyfire supports Flash and Ajax, two Web technologies common to desktop browsing that have not been available for mass users, though other mobile browsing companies, including Opera, plan to include at least Flash support. So far, Skyfire's choppy video rendering hasn't been as good as other third-party video solutions, such as vTap.

VIdeo on Skyfire
Just because Skyfire can play video, doesn't mean it plays it well. (Credit: Skyfire Labs)

Performance: Skyfire on Symbian
What will early Symbian testers find with Skyfire's Symbian build? Pretty much the same thing they'd find on Windows Mobile phones. In fact, the products share a 0.6 beta version number. Yet, there have been changes since our first reviews. Most notable are the addition of a weather widget on the home screen, which expands into a five-day forecast and more quick links to featured Web sites. It's a moderately useful feature and, according to Skyfire, there are more widgets coming soon--let's just hope they're all removable. In an interview, a Skyfire representative also addressed video playback and acknowledged the need to keep on trucking.

Perhaps because phone owners are curious about an Opera competitor or because they're excited about a Flash-supporting mobile browser, Skyfire has already gathered more than enough Symbian testers and has closed its initial testing round. Hopefuls will have to wait for a second round of beta testing to begin, but Skyfire is tight-lipped on when that round will open.

The Symbian S60 version will currently work on 10 Nokia S60 phones, including N95 and E71.

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.