SXSW 2012: Browser Firm Opera Talks HTML5, Successes, and Challenges
By Mark Sullivan
Norwegian browser maker Opera took me out to dinner last night, and we talked about what the company has been up to. In a nutshell, Opera – the only browser maker located outside the US – says it’s doing well.
The company says it has all but abandoned the strategy of getting phone makers to ship its browser on new phones. The company’s focus today is on selling its browser in emerging markets and marketing its various browsers through wireless operators.
HTML5: Dream Big
The big Opera news hit last month at Mobile World Congress when the company announced its new Opera 12 browser, which contains some cool HTML5 functionality. All the browser makers–Apple (Safari), Google (Chrome), and Microsoft (Internet Explorer) –are working hard to bring new HTML5 functionality to both the desktop and mobile devices such as phones and tablets. For a look at how well mobile browser firms are doing supporting HTML take a look at this chart from the site Mobile HTML.
Now comes the hard part of integrating HTML5 into Opera and other browsers.
The hope is that once apps that run in the browser can do everything that free standing mobile apps (the kind you download and that run on your device) can do, the type of phone or OS you use won’t matter anymore–all apps will run on all phones.
This could be huge for the app developer community, which would then focus on building one app that runs on everything. Right now, making different versions of apps for different OS’s and different flavors of OS’s is a huge resources sink.
The benefits would also be a boon for browser makers too, putting the browser – be it desktop or mobile – into the center of the action. Instead of download, installing, and launching apps users would spend far more time in the browser.
HTML5 Hurdles: Hollywood and DRM
But Opera says building its product to run HTML5 pages is no walk in the park. It says working within the red-tape-restrictions of standards bodies and in a landscape where competitors must agree on how HTML5 should handle things such as video and touchscreen functions is a challenge.
But the reward of making HTML5 a new browser standard is well worth the heartache. With HTML5 pages audio and video play within the browser (now external player required). HTML5 also delivers a cavalcade of new slick interactive features ideal for the touch interface.
But it’s Hollywood, not just technical hurdles, which are proving the equally as thorny when it comes to development of HTML5. Hollywood wants Opera and other browsers to support a full set of DRM controls. These controls would make sure the browser can decrypt only non-free music or video that had been paid for, and then that the user could watch and listen to it for a prescribed amount of time.
Naturally, the browser makers aren’t that excited about building this in. One Opera exec told me they want to make a browser that operates on the open Internet and can display or play any content the user decides to consume. That kind of talk sends shivers up the spine of music and movie industry types.
The record and movie industries are notoriously avid (A.K.A. paranoid) about content security on the Web. They fear that delivering paid content on something as connected as a browser might make it easier to steal content.
Standards Body Standoff?
And to add another level of complexity to the equation, issues like the above aren’t being discussed in just one standards body. There are two major ones–the World Wide Web Consortium (3WC) and the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group.
The oldest and arguably most influential one, the 3WC, is known for acting very slowly, and merely “recommending” standards without having much power of enforcement.
So it’s no wonder that the development world isn’t speeding toward HTML5. There’s a lot to work out, and the more I learn about the process the more it sounds like a Herding Cats scenario.
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