Will Opera Mobile perform for free?

With Firefox Mobile and Skyfire closing in, Opera Software may need a new pricing plan for its mobile browser. It has "not yet determined the end-user model."

Skyfire, in closed beta (Credit: Skyfire)

Opera should be bracing for impact.

Quite possibly for the first time, Opera Software will receive real pressure in the mobile-browser space from Firefox Mobile and Skyfire.

Like Opera's cell phone browser, Opera Mini (video), both newcomers are free. However, Opera Mobile, which serves Windows Mobile and Symbian S60 phones, is a commercial product that smartphone users may not want to pay for when handed alternatives gratis.

How does Opera plan to keep current customers and attract new ones when consumers face a choice between paying $24 and $0? I asked the Opera folks if they would consider making Opera Mobile free in anticipation of or in response to oncoming competition.

"The mobile Web is blossoming, and we are strongly positioned to take advantage of its growth," Tatsuki Tomita, Opera's senior vice president of consumer products, responded. "While we watch the industry closely, we have not yet determined the end-user model for Opera Mobile."

What a nicely toned, safely vague statement! It's one any company would be expected to make when challenged on two fronts by a competitive freeware surge. Yet with actual working, marketable products for a range of devices and a business plan that reaches into corporate pockets, Opera is well-positioned. For now.

At a mobile-focused meeting this week, representatives of Opera, Mozilla (Firefox's maker), and the newly announced Skyfire gathered in a University of California at Berkeley auditorium over greasy pizza and lukewarm soda for a demo and Q&A of the three soon-to-be competing mobile browsers. I should note that Mozilla's open-source philosophy leaches its competitive urge; it says it's content to be one browsing solution among many. The other two, however, are happy to lock horns.

A prototype user interface for Firefox Mobile (Credit: Mozilla)

While Opera used the forum mainly to defend its position as the mobile browser to beat, Mozilla and Skyfire are in heavy development of their propositions for better browsing--on precisely those handsets supported by Opera Mobile.

According to Jay Sullivan, senior director of Mozilla Labs, Firefox Mobile is actively developing for Windows Mobile and Linux phones. After scrapping Minimo, an earlier mobile browser based on the Mozilla engine, Sullivan and team turned to Firefox Mobile, which will represent a more faithful experience to the popular desktop browser.

Last week, Mozilla community members posted prototypes of two possible user interface designs, which could well end up looking only distantly related to the mobile browser projected to hatch toward the end of 2008.

Neither Sullivan nor product manager Doug Turner is certain what Firefox Mobile will look like; however, they assure us that it will inherit support for extensions, widgets, and Flash video.

Based on the cross-platform development language XUL (XML user interface language,) we should expect to see a mobile version of Firefox that integrates smoothly with the phone's hardware and software, and that will interact with phone contacts, the camera, and GPS navigation. With that, extra media-uploading goodies could make up for, in one example, the phone's downgraded video quality.

Skyfire, which made a splash debut at Demo this year is also a direct threat to Opera Mini and Opera Mobile.

Like Opera, Skyfire's browser uses a proxy to replicate a PC's Web site rendering, and its close relationship to Firefox Mobile is none other than a shared Mozilla platform, which Skyfire uses as a middleware layer. The contender is a closed-beta start-up in Series A funding, but it has already impressed users (and CNET editor Rafe Needleman) with its smart zooming functions, smoothness, speed, and high fidelity with multimedia and text. Touch-screen phones will get an extra finger-friendly toolbar.

Opera Mobile (Credit: Opera Software)

Where does that leave Opera? Similar to Skyfire, Opera Mini already has object-zooming on full Web page views in addition to traditional small-screen rendering. It also has a digital mouse, scroll keys, and Opera Link, an open Web channel that automatically remembers bookmarks from any Opera browser, Mini, Mobile, or Wii.

You can link up from other browsers, too, from your Opera Link account. The more robust Opera Mobile offers advanced features such as image saving, text copying, and full Flash support (for Pocket PC.)

Although Tomita boasts more than 30 million unique users for Opera Mini alone, it would seem an understatement that he and his team are merely "watching" the industry to forecast Opera Mobile's rank. Hardly the passive observer, Opera appears to have hunkered down in a defensive stance, trying to redirect excitement for the new to what can already be done in the now, albeit for a fee.

Like it or not, Skyfire and Firefox Mobile are on their way, offering to smartphone users for free some of the same technology Opera uses to deliver full and familiar Web pages at a cost. This is undoubtedly good for consumers, as competition almost always is.

Opera will have to decide if it can hang on to users paying for the richer smartphone application, or if it will have to backpedal, offering it for free and ramping up instead on enterprise and carrier deals.

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.