Sometimes the difficult questions are the only ones worth asking. It's an old journalism adage but sometimes you're reminded of just how true it is. The strain clearly showed on the face of Jon S. on Tetzchner, Co-Founder of Opera when we asked about Apple's approval process for Opera Mobile for iPhone.
Officially Opera Mobile for iPhone doesn't really exist "only here [backstage at the Opera stand at MWC, Barcelona] can you see it." He makes it clear that absolutely no photographs are allowed.
From the brief demonstration we are given, it is also clear that Opera on the iPhone lives up to its "very fast" reputation.
Jon S. von Tetzchner showed us the main BBC news page loading on the Opera app on an iPhone. Although there is a brief delay (of around three to five seconds) during which time the browser is blank, the whole page instantly appears in one jolt. It's a very different experience to one we're used to on Safari which loads up the page piecemeal and delivers it over a period of around 10 to 20 seconds.
Those familiar with Opera for Mobile will be aware that this is because of highly optimised code taking place away from the browser on Opera's servers. Instead of contacting a server directly you are sending a request to the Opera server, which optimises the web site and pushes a compressed version to the iPhone.
"We compress data up to 90 per cent" says Tetzchner "and it's even faster when you're on slower networks." No hard data is available but Opera is claiming "up to six times faster on 3G networks."
It's a fairly round specced browser as well. It has tabs (highly visual ones at the bottom of the screen) and passwords, bookmarks, and all the usual features. Like Safari on the iPhone you can zoom in automatically to text columns. But deep down it's the speed that matters.
We note that the app we're shown is marked Opera 5 Beta 2, and Opera has clearly been down this route before. "No. We never submitted Opera for Apple approval" says Tetzchner. But he did say "we talked before" and concedes that there is the perception of a problem with Apple approval surrounding the Opera app.
So what has changed? Well previously Opera had ported its mobile app to the iPhone, whereas now it has been written from the ground up using native iPhone code.
"By it's very nature a Web browser runs other applications" says Tetzchner, "Apple's license agreement has a clause in it that no app will run executable code." So this is a problem for all browsers. "For this reason I do not think Mozilla will ever make a browser for the iPhone" says Tetzchner.
"But Opera does not run applications" notes Tetzchner "the application is always run offsite on the server".
There is also the other clause in the Apple licensing that states an app "must not duplicate core functionality". What constitutes core functionality is always up for debate, however.
Opera Mini on an iPhone
"They are allowing other browsers" notes Tetzchner "we think they will allow it". Apple originally had a problem with other browsers, but has approved those based upon WebKit to run on the iPhone. "Opera is not based upon WebKit, no" confirms Tetzchner "but it's the world's most popular mobile browser. Why would Apple not want the world's most popular browser on the iPhone?"
"They [Apple] have allowed other browsers and Spotify" notes Tetzchner "so why wouldn't they allow Opera?"
One thing is clear. Opera has fought its corner on other operating systems before. In December 2007 Opera filed a complaint with the European Union that Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer stifled competition. Microsoft bowed to pressure and integrated a ballot screen to Windows that enables users to select which browser they want during installation.
Time will tell whether Opera is right, and Apple is prepared to allow a non-WebKit browser on the iPhone. Opera has yet to submit Opera to Apple and Jon S. on Tetzchner wouldn't be drawn on a possible release date. "We'll submit it when it's ready" says Tetzchner.