Google's Chrome browser has joined Opera and Amazon in offering built-in data compression. It could save users money, but could come at the expense of privacy.
For many users, the data plan on their mobile contract is the most frustrating aspect of owning a smartphone. Even for users with unlimited data, companies are finding ways to throttle the data and push users toward a limited plan. While free Wi-Fi is becoming more prevalent, large and shared data plans are still in high demand.
Google announced in January that is was adding a compression feature to the Android and iOS versions of Chrome that would reduce data usage by up to 50 percent. Opera claims their mobile browser uses up to 90 percent less data than other browsers and Amazon Silk offers built-in compression as well. All of these companies are in the business of keeping people on the internet, so it makes sense that they would want to lower the cost of mobile web browsing.
"Mobile data usage is exploding globally. Global mobile data usage grew 81% in 2013, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index. There is a need for compression given the amount of mobile data consumers are using," said Per Wetterdal, Senior Vice President of Business Development for Opera.
High data usage is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed for the sake of consumers. Mobile data compression is a smart move for mobile browsers, but what does it mean for the wireless carriers?
While carriers can potentially miss out on revenue from customers choosing higher data plans, or the ability to capitalize on overage fees, mobile data compression can potentially lessen the strain on carrier networks. According to Mobile Ready author Scott Bales, it could also give them the opportunity to attract more customers.
"The Carriers are likely to see this as a positive move, as it brings some relief to the scale and performance plans the operators have in their forecasts," Bales said "It may, however, raise a few eyebrows from the bean counters, as they will see less megabytes as less data revenue."
In most cases, mobile data compression works with the use of a proxy server. Your mobile browsing requests are routed through a proxy server where their data is compressed and optimized before it shows up on your phone's screen.
The compression feature in Google Chrome uses their PageSpeed tools to help with the compression and transcodes images to WebP format to speed things up. Most options also offer a bypass for secure or encrypted connections, like the one being offered by Chrome.
Mobile data compression has been an option for a while. Opera launched their Opera Mini browser with compression back in 2005. Still, it hasn't made an impact on mainstream smartphone users; but Google offering data compression definitely increases the potential for audience awareness of such tools. Despite potential concerns, Opera's Wetterdal is convinced that it is ultimately the best move.
"This compression capability will democratize access to the mobile internet because it will save people money on mobile data," Wetterdal said. "This will get more and more people online and bridge the digital divide. It will also give users a better experience - reducing buffering videos and slower page loading times."
While mobile carriers will lose revenue to customers choosing smaller data plans and possibly lose revenue to fewer customers accruing data overages, the might be able to gain customers and lessen the strain on their networks.
If data compression tools become a ubiquitous option across the major mobile browsers it seems that it has the potential to save consumers money. But Tangoe's Senior Vice President, Ken Lienemann, said that the data usage will spread back out across native apps and other uncompressed aspects of a user's mobile experience.
"Mobile data usage likely decreases per device in the short-term for many individuals as their web page rendering mobile experiences improve and app usage is maximized (for those browsers that support data compression for apps). However, per data throughput increases in aggregate across a user’s device estate, and the enterprise mobile estate as well, as more applications (and experiences) are utilized," Lienemann said.
Whether or not carriers will readily adopt the tool remains to be seen, but the potential exists for mobile data compression to add value for providers. Scott Bales said it might even be something carriers will be pushing for.
"I’d suggest we’ll see the carriers actively try to promote the 'turning on' of the compression feature," he said.
Smartphone users aren't going to voluntarily use their phone any less, even if it would help with bandwidth issues or save them money. Regardless of how the mobile industry responds to data compression, the truth of the matter is that they have to respond to current data use demand and the inevitable increase of data use in the future.