Why Opera’s lightweight Mini browser is more popular than ever

Back in the early days of the internet-capable mobile phone – and by this I mean 2006, the pre-iPhone(s aapl) era – Opera Mini came out, and it was the best way to surf the web from such a device. The browser uses server-side compression to squeeze data by up to 90 percent, so it meant faster page loads and less data usage.
That was then, this is now. But it turns out the popularity of Opera Mini is still growing like mad – in fact, last December saw the biggest month-on-month growth for the tiny browser in its history, up 6.3 percent from 195.5 million to 207.8 million users. The Mini servers handled more than 143 billion pages and compressed more than 12 petabytes of data during the month. What gives?
Opera Mini growth chart
The answer is a bit of a mixed bag. Firstly, the big growth in mobile internet usage these days is in emerging markets, and data can be much more costly – relative to earnings – in such markets than in the ‘developed’ world. This is why other players are also adopting compression techniques, such as Blaast and, somewhat controversially, Nokia(s nok).
As Norway’s Opera says in its latest State of the Mobile Web report, issued on Thursday, the earliest adopters of Opera Mini were in Europe and the U.S., with Asia hot on their heels. Adoption in Latin America took off back in 2011, and Africa in particular saw growth at the end of last year. Bear in mind that we’re now talking those areas where internet-capable feature phones and low-end smartphones are becoming people’s first computers.
Interestingly, Opera says 32 percent of its users are now on smartphones – that takes into account the 21.5 million users of Opera Mobile, which is designed specifically for smartphones, but as Opera Mini users outnumber Opera Mobile users roughly 10:1 that percentage spells big-time adoption of the lightweight browser on smartphones, too.
But there is another reason why December was so hot for Opera Mini, and that’s good old seasonality. As Pål Unanue-Zahl, the man behind Opera report, told me: “December is generally a strong month for the sale of mobile phones and a lot of users are discovering the internet on their newly acquired smartphones.”
Either way, Opera Mini is still doing really well, and its popularity should serve as a barometer for anyone designing apps for the emerging markets. Remember, not everyone has the option of being a data hound, and lightweight still rules for many.