OPERA Hails... Beginning of the Browser Wars
Saturday, August 29, 2009 10:17:30 AM
October 27, 2008, 7:39 am
Opera Sings an Ode to Browsers Everywhere
By Saul Hansell
I have to confess, I haven’t paid much attention to Opera Software until recently. The Norwegian company has been an also-ran in the browser market for 13 years. On Friday, I had a chance to sit down with its co-founder and chief executive, Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner. I can’t say that I’m convinced that Opera is now poised to take the Web by storm, but his take on the browser world makes good sense and paints a picture of a future with browsers everywhere.
Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner (Credit: Lenny Ignelzi/AP)As a company, Opera focuses on areas where Internet Explorer and Firefox are hardly to be found. Some 80 percent of its business is browsers for mobile phones and other devices that aren’t computers. It has relatively few users in the United States. Its PC browser is particularly popular in central and eastern Europe. One reason is that the browser is optimized to run on old computers with slow connections.
Mr. von Tetzchner said the main reason that Opera has not done better in the United States is that it had to compete first with Microsoft and then Firefox, both of which gave browsers away free. Opera struggled for a business model, trying shareware, paid downloads, and display advertising, none of which proved to be popular. Since 2005, it has been giving an ad-free browser away free. Now it earns money from search engines, which pay for traffic from its search box. Mr. von Tetzchner wouldn’t go into detail, but he said these add up to more than $1 a user each year.
The future of browsers on computers is going down two paths, he said. There are more features to help users organize their information, like a new service that helps synchronize bookmarks among several computers and phones. On the other hand, Mr. von Tetzchner echoes the view of Google and many others, that the browser is becoming the platform for applications. Some Web standards that are emerging will permit more functions for standalone applications, including storing information on local computers, displaying more sophisticated graphics and receiving notifications from remote servers.
Mr. von Tetzchner is particularly keen on applications in the form of widgets — tiny, single-purpose programs that display information like weather or stock quotes outside of a browser window. Widgets, of course, are everywhere, including Microsoft Vista, Google Desktop, Apple OS X and many social networks. Opera supports the widget standard published by the World Wide Web Consortium, which defines the basic format of Web pages. Mr. von Tetzchner argues that this standard will allow widgets to be published that will work on many sorts of devices, but so far, the standard has few followers.
(I downloaded Opera after I met with Mr. von Tetzchner. I didn’t see anything that will make me switch browsers, but I found the widget structure to be the most intriguing. It seemed more flexible and attractive than other widget software I’ve seen.)
Opera has a somewhat stronger position on mobile phones than it does on computers, in part because it gets some distribution from handset makers and wireless carriers.
For smartphones, Opera Mobile is a full-featured browser that can display most Web sites. Handset makers pay Opera about 50 cents to $1 a copy for each phone made with the browser on it.
For less sophisticated phones and slower networks, it offers Opera Mini, which takes advantage of a server computer, run by Opera, to handle the processing of Web pages. The server then sends a simplified version of each page to the phone in a compressed form.
Because that makes for much faster browsing no matter what the phone and network, Mr. von Tetzchner said, Opera Mini is increasingly popular on smartphones, even those that use the latest third-generation, or 3G, wireless data networks.
“3G isn’t really that fast,” he said. “We try to deal with the real world.”
Mr. von Tetzchner said that Opera’s engineers have developed a version of Opera Mini that can run on an Apple iPhone, but Apple won’t let the company release it because it competes with Apple’s own Safari browser. [Update: Read more details about Opera and the iPhone.]
Opera Mini is free, and can be downloaded onto many phones. The company earns money, as it does for its computer service, from search engines. In addition, some carriers pay Opera to develop custom versions of Opera Mini for their systems.
Not surprisingly, Mr. von Tetzchner endorsed my view that the way to get video to the television is through a browser. Opera has deals to put browsers into some sets made by Sony and Philips. Right now Sony’s system, built into the Bravia Internet Link that you can add to some of its sets, only displays content from Sony’s partners. But technically, it could browse any Web site and play any Web video, he said. So far, TV makers don’t believe that that people want access to the full Web on their sets.
Mr. von Tetzchner, however, says there is some evidence that people do want browsers on their televisions. Witness the growing popularity of the Opera browser for the Nintendo Wii game machine, on which the wireless remote offers a replacement for a mouse you can use from your couch. It includes Adobe’s Flash software and can play some Web video. Just as the Opera browser reformats Web pages for small cellphone screens, it has ways to zoom in and make pages more useful on televisions as well, he said.
The next big thing, he said, is browsers in cars. GPS navigation systems, built-in or add-on, will likely have wireless data connections that allow them to check traffic conditions and look for nearby Thai restaurants.
Opera has developed a version of its browser to go into VeriFone credit card terminals to bring Web content like manufacturer’s promotions, consumer reviews and even competitors’ prices into stores.
Opera’s vision reflects a reality I don’t always see from the makers of various devices–pretty much every electronic thing we’re building is an a computer connected to the Internet. And just as the plumbing of these devices is all moving to Internet Protocol, the user interfaces for all of them will be far more powerful if they are versions of Web standards. If a supermarket wants to show me a YouTube video when I check out, or my Facebook friend wants to send me something to watch on my television, why should the narrow vision of a hardware company stop me?
I don’t know if Opera as a company will succeed, since it is competing with Microsoft, Google and the open-source Firefox. But if it helps move this vision of browsers everywhere forward, I’ll be glad.