Apple’s App Store is flush with VPN apps for iPhone users but the ones worth installing tend to require subscriptions that cost anything from $5 to $25 per month.  Now browser firm Opera believes it can offer big VPN performance to iPhone users at no cost in a new app called Opera VPN for iOS.

The security and anonymity offered by VPNs has become a theme for Opera ever since it acquired Canadian outfit SurfEasy in 2015 with the intention of widening the technology’s mainstream appeal. At the time, how this might be achieved wasn’t obvious. Weren’t consumer VPNs a niche of interest purely to users wanting to hide their IP address or geographical location? At best there might be some demand from the smaller but growing number of people who use them to secure mobile connections when working away from base.

Their security and privacy potential has always been manifest but the relationship between price and performance and security was often a stumbling point.  

Opera recently announced plans to integrate a free VPN in a version of its desktop browser due for release in the summer of 2016, the first time this has been done in this sector without (it is claimed) some kind of compromise. A free VPN app for Android has also been promised for the reasonably near future to complement the launch of VPN for iOS.

If VPNs are on the threshold of becoming something everyone wants to use across desktop and mobile, then it looks as if the company has just mugged its rivals.

Opera VPN for iOS - up close

Opera VPN for iOS is at its core a remodelled version of SurfEasy’s existing VPN services which, perhaps confusingly, will continue to be offered to users in subscription form with some extra features under that brand.  SurfEasy’s former CEO and founder Chris Houston, now senior vice president of VPN products for Opera, promises that despite being offered at no cost, Opera VPN for iOS will not impose data limits and cut back on availability of performance.

Initially, the free service will eschew logging although Houston admits that at some point the firm will gather anonymous data on user interaction to sell on as Internet intelligence. Opera, then, will not track each user but will amalgamate behaviour as part of larger and marketable data sets.

“We want to add transparency to the product,” says Houston who emphasises that the terms of conditions will make explicit what is – and isn’t – is being collected. Many VPNs aren’t particularly clear, including some that charge subscription fees. 

“Our view is that they may be not as transparent as they should be. We feel there is a real opportunity to be a consumer champion.”

As Opera states in its press release promoting the service: “Opera also helps publishers monetize their content through advertising and advertisers reach the audiences that build value for their businesses, capitalizing on a global consumer audience reach that exceeds 1 billion.”

As with the desktop browser VPN, Opera VPN for iOS will initially offer five locations for users to choose from - USA, Canada, Germany, Singapore and The Netherlands – with mobile users routed automatically to the nearest one.

Why would someone choose Opera over another provider?

“It’s not terribly difficult to launch a VPN but it’s difficult to run one,” suggests Houston. “I would argue that we can offer the highest quality of service [as well as] credibility and trust. Opera has 20 years’ history in providing proxy solutions.

“We have a fairly sophisticated VPN we’ve been operating for five years including other providers who white-label our service.”

Power users who want a more featured service will continue to use SurfEasy, he says.

“SurfEasy is more feature rich, supports many more regions, has automatic Wi-Fi detection and encryption.”

There is still a risk of confusion between the SurfEasy brand that continues to operate and its new Opera skin. SurfEasy already offers Android and iOS VPNs under that name and the users of those might justifiably wonder about the benefits of continuing to use them when much of the same service is now being offered at no cost.

In the end, the technical innovation offered by Opera VPN for iOS (and Android when that version arrives) is not really the issue so much as the fact it is being offered for free under a mainstream brand name, Opera. It could be arged that a free service should have started with Android rather than iOS but perhaps the firm wants to see how dropping the bomb of free VPNs into the subscription-driven iOS app sector works out first.  

VPNs have been a bit of a wild west on the margins of respectability up to now. Could the endorsement of Opera give them a shot at mainstream acceptance?

Find your next job with techworld jobs