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Opera for iPhone was officially approved yesterday. The mobile web portal now has the distinct honour of becoming the first third-party browser to rock up in the App Store, pitting it directly against Safari and flying in the face of previous Apple policy that native iPhone apps should not be threatened by outside competitors.

But Apple’s approval of the Opera iPhone app runs deep. This is not a simple nod to a more open platform for the world’s most divisive gadget. Far from it. It needs to be viewed in context of Apple’s recent announcement of iPhone OS 4 and what that means for the first-generation of EDGE-based iPhones.

Unlike Safari, Opera compresses web pages on its own servers, meaning it can deliver full pages quicker than Apple’s own browser. At first you might wonder why Apple would want something that can best its own effort. But then you have to take into account Steve Jobs’ confirmation this week that Apple is stopping support for the old-school, original iPhone, with OS 4 strictly for newer models.

Opera is ideal for EDGE-based, 2G phones. Even Opera itself admits it, confirming yesterday that, “Users of the app will notice an uptake in speed, especially on slower networks such as the 2G Edge network.”

When viewed in this context, Apple’s approval becomes much less surprising. Rather than viewing it as risk, Cupertino clearly sees Opera as a way to give something back to iPhone owners with older models. It offers a supplement to Safari, rather than an alternative. And because it compresses pages, it doesn’t directly compete with it.

opera logo

That suggests that neither a mobile version of Chrome, or Firefox Mobile will come to the iPhone party any time soon. And despite the fact Opera has a massive 50 million mobile users globally, these are focused largely on mid-range handsets. There’s no denying it’s a cool and easy-to-use platform, but evidently Apple sees it playing second fiddle to Safari.

That’s with good reason. While the App itself is remarkably swift and tabbed browsing is a delight, many websites do not render properly, including big mobile hitters such as the BBC and Guardian. This will undoubtedly fixed in time, but it does show that some web authors aren’t taking Opera as seriously as perhaps they should. Safari will be the go-to web app for most users, especially who aren’t clued into the choices they have. But techheads will doubtless plump for Opera if they’ve got an iPhone.

The fact it’s free and available now is great. But Apple wouldn’t have given it the green light if it did not have something ready to trump it. iPhone OS 4 may be official, but you can expect Safari to get a serious, much-needed upgrade when the fourth-generation iPhone finally takes a bow over the summer. Apple still wants to maintain control, but by using acts of generosity such as this, it can appear to be open and friendly to new ideas. However, deep down, Steve Jobs clearly knows he’s still the master of the iPhone platform’s destiny.

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