Opera's Bid for the iPhone

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James Spader

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Apple's willingness to let competing Web browsers onto the iPhone will soon be put to the test. Norwegian software maker Opera (OPERA:NO) said on Feb. 10 that it has created a version of its mobile browser that works with Apple handsets and that it would soon try to get a green light from Apple to put the browser on the iPhone and iPod touch.

Apple's response will be closely watched by customers and competitors. A "yes" from Cupertino (Calif.)-based Apple (AAPL) would open the door for other software makers to try to get their browsers on the popular smartphone, which now features only versions of Apple's Safari. Some rivals might view rejection as an attempt to squelch competition. "One way to look at the decision is: Are they offering people a miniature computer or a few features on a device?" says Wendy Seltzer, a fellow with the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology & Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado. "Will they be opening up all of the possibilities that users can imagine for it or locking a subset of functionalities and limiting what people can do with it?"

Executives at Opera will demonstrate their product, Opera Mini for iPhone, at a mobile industry conference in Barcelona beginning on Feb. 15. They say they've taken steps to ensure that the application meets App Store standards on quality, safety, looks, and other criteria. Yet Apple may have grounds for rejecting the app because it replicates or otherwise competes with Safari, already on the iPhone. "It's a coin flip whether the company accepts or rejects it," says Charlie Wolf, an analyst at Needham & Company.

Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined to comment on Opera's browser, which has yet to be submitted for approval. The company allows other browsers, such as Bolt, into the App Store if they adhere to a software code called WebKit, which also underlies Safari. That requirement has kept browsers such as Mozilla's Firefox off the device.

App Store Inaction over Google Voice

Developers have been turned down for other applications, including a book-reading app that Apple said contained "inappropriate sexual content" from the Kama Sutra; an app that lists telephone numbers for members of Congress because it contained "offensive" caricatures of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others; and a podcast-managing app, which broke rules against downloading podcast files to phones.

Apple has refrained from approving Google Voice, an application that lets users be reached on multiple calling devices with a single number, because it might interfere with, or replace, certain features on the iPhone. The Federal Communications Commission opened an inquiry into the matter in July. Critics have said that Apple dawdled because it doesn't want a competing voice-calling service on the iPhone. The application is still unavailable on the iPhone, although a version can be accessed through the iPhone's browser.

Browsers serve as the main gateway from a computing device onto the Web. In the 1990s, Microsoft (MSFT) was accused of anticompetitive behavior by the U.S. Justice Dept., which said Microsoft harmed rivals such as Netscape by bundling its Internet Explorer browser with the Windows operating system.

In 2007, Opera complained to European regulators about Microsoft's bundling efforts. After Opera's complaint received support from Mozilla and Google (GOOG)—which makes the Chrome browser—EU regulators began an investigation and urged compromise. Microsoft has since agreed to include a so-called ballot screen that gives users a choice among browsers.