For browser maker Opera Software ASA, 2004 has been a busy year. The Norwegian company went public on the Oslo Stock Exchange, synced up its Web browsers with its Version 7.50 release and made more inroads onto mobile devices.
Its biggest challenge may be yet to come: grabbing share from Microsoft Corp., whose Internet Explorer dominates the browser market. Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner says he is optimistic about the opportunity, particularly as mobile devices become the prevalent way for people to connect to the Internet.
Von Tetzchner, while visiting San Francisco recently, sat down with eWEEK.com Senior Writer Matt Hicks to discuss Operas plans and the future of the Web browser.
With the recent IPO, is that allowing you to expand in any specific areas at this point?
Basically, we are expanding. We havent lost the focus of the company. Our focus is on client-side Internet software. That doesnt mean we wont do anything on the server side ever, but in a way thats not our focus.
You dont have any server products today, right?
Is there anything on the roadmap?
We may well release something, but again you could call it companions to the browser—things to improve the experience one way or another. But the focus is on the client side. Were not really that keen to get into the server business or the services business. There has been a lot of interest in us doing that. People see what we do on the client side and want us to expand, but we would rather work through partners. But we may well do some things ourselves as well, when necessary.
You were saying that you often get pressure from customers about the need for some server-side software. Why? What is their need there? Is this to have some kind of replacement for their existing e-mail server, for instance?
No, no. This is more a part of us moving into the telco business. Were talking to operators, and they want their Opera Platform solution, which Im not sure if you are familiar with.
Basically, its a front end for mobile phones which is customized from servers. You can do a lot of things and a lot of services on the server side that cooperate with the Opera Platform technology. So in a way, we are enabling this technology through what we do on the client. Sometimes, they would like to see a one-stop shop. So although its not really what wed like to do, we may well have to do a couple of things there …
When you were talking about the telcos, so today when theyre deploying the Opera Platform on their specific phones, in their specific service and on the server side theyre running stuff from other partners? Who are some of your partners there?
You can use any solution …
Any app server?
Any Web server solution, basically. Then there are some solutions for multicasting and things like that which we can also work with. We are flexible. … We listen to the customer and give the customer what they want.
I know you guys have done a lot of work moving into the mobile area in the last few years. Moving forward, where do you see yourselves devoting your time? How do you see it splitting between the desktop browser versus the mobile browser?
Its one thing. Thats the beauty of what we do. We make one product, and we tailor it to everything around. So its one source code on the desktop and on the mobile. Obviously, we have to do some tailoring in the user interface or user experience, and that requires teams, which we have both for the desktop and the mobile. But in a sense, the core of the product is the same.
The same rendering engine?
Yes. … That is unique.
As a company, how does that help you? Does it cut back on development or let you make better use of those development resources?
This means that we didnt have to start again. We can continue with a code base that is now 10 years old, 10 years old in April. … Theres a lot of knowledge that goes into that and a lot of reiteration.
Just to start on the desktop side, we had talked before about [Opera] 7.50 and the syncing up of the platforms [that] you did. Another area you focused on seemed to be beefing up some of the additional applications—e-mail and adding chat. What I found interesting is if we look at some of the other browsers out there, Mozilla is breaking out their suite into a distinct browser. Why are you looking to add in fuller functionality on top of the browser? Is that the direction [in which] youre trying to go?
As a company were the only ones … doing revenue on this, in a way. That means we have to listen to users and listen to customers and give them what they want. We have to differentiate. People have to have a reason to use Opera.
Speed is an important issue, and a lot of people tend to use Opera because of the speed. Speed is not the only selling point. We cant have one selling point. …Were trying to differentiate in innovating and in doing new features.
To a certain extent it was “back to basics” that the other browsers have been doing. You had the old Mosaic browser that was very simple, and Netscape to a certain extent and then IE. … Nothing much interesting has happened with those applications. I may be going a bit overboard, but thats my opinion. Theres not been an awful lot of innovation there.
I guess tabbed browsing is about the biggest feature?
We had multiple windows from day one. We werent necessarily the first one to have a tab. We might have been, or we might not have been. There are a lot of things weve done first. “Sessions” is definitely one thing we were first to do, and some of the others have been picking up.
What are “sessions”?
Basically, youre having multiple windows [open], you exit the program, you start again and you start with multiple windows. Thats the default way to use Opera. And obviously that means you will have windows inside windows and not just one. …
With this back to basics thing, which I guess Apple started with Safari and then my feeling is that Mozilla kind of copied that, we think removing functionality is not the way. … We may well offer a skin of Opera in the future that would be just a skin that is simpler.
At the same, what were trying to do is differentiate in providing features that are outside the scope of normal browsing. We think theres a lot of innovation left in browsing, and we think we are to some extent proving that in what we are doing. And again, its being picked up. … You mentioned before everything from pop-up blocking to more importantly, mouse gestures, people shortcuts, sessions. … Theres more and more were doing, and some of this is being picked up by the competition. And if its being picked up by the competition, then I guess were doing something right.
In 7.50, one thing I noticed that I havent noticed in other browsers is that you have an RSS reader built into it. Beyond what you have in that release right now, can you give me any preview of any of the features you are working on that people wouldnt have really expected or seen in the browser so far?
We dont like to talk about what is coming in the future. We have mentioned one thing, and thats the voice and voice recognition. This is a natural progression from the work weve been doing with IBM with X+V [XHTML+Voice]. So, again, this is part of driving standards with IBM, Motorola and other parties.
And youve been doing that mainly for the mobile?
So far, weve been working with IBM to make tools. What were now doing is were starting to put this in the mainstream. The technology is interesting enough to start doing this, and we think this is a very important technology for the future. Not only for the desktop, where for the desktop its cool and theres accessibility—two good reasons to do it. Then you have mobile and automotive and other solutions where it makes a lot of sense.
We want to be there early. We want to be at the cutting edge of technology at any one time, and that includes doing voice. Voice has been around for quite some time, but its getting to the level where its something you can start to deploy.
What you guys are doing with voice, this is more than just a talking browser. Its also recognition and commanding the browser? Its bidirectional?
Voice recognition for commanding and also for working inside the Web page. This is where X+V comes in, where you kind of define in the page a voice vocabulary. And then, obviously, the browser will request things and potentially read pages. Its the full thing.
Why is this so important to Opera beyond being on the cutting edge of technology in how its going to be applied in the way people interact with the browser? Where do you see it being important?
Certain markets like with mobile phones, you want to get smaller mobile phones and you want bigger displays. Something has to give. … Also in the automotive industry where youre not allowed to be looking at a screen when driving. Then you can use the voice technology. And also just for easier use and obviously for accessibility.
The Web is too important a place to not consider accessibility. We have considered accessibility from day one. This is part of the design and work we have done. Were not saying were doing everything perfect, but at least were trying and were listening.
Just a little bit of reasoning for this. My father is a doctor in psychology. His specialty is children with disabilities. So this is not just a sales pitch. And we have users with disabilities that are using Opera. Its a meaningful thing.
Talking about where the browser industry has gone, what do you find today as still the biggest hurdle in getting people to try Opera, especially on the desktop side?
Basically, we need to get the information out. The fact is that people are getting IE typically with their machine. They have to be told that there are alternatives. We believe that if they do find Opera, a lot of them will find Opera to be a better tool, especially if they give it some time. For some people, it just clicks. For other people, they do require a little bit of a learning curve. Opera is kind of different. Were not trying to do the same as everyone else. … Things like fast forward and rewind, these are not usual functions in the other browsers.
One stumbling block I seem to notice a lot in people trying to use alternative browsers is that even when they do, there are Web applications that often force them back to IE. … How much of an issue is this, Web applications being written with IE-specific code?
Most companies are starting to be professional enough not to do this. But its still an issue. Typically, like you say, some applications might make shortcuts and make use of ActiveX. My impression is that ActiveX is not used that much. In general, there are other ways to do things, and this is where were trying to make it even easier to use other ways.
Secondly, there is going to be this big change … even Bill Gates knows this. He said in 2000, that in 2002 there would be more non-PC devices connecting to the Net than PC devices. He was wrong about the date. Hes right about whats going to happen. The fact is that which operating system these devices will be running we dont know. Most likely it wont be Windows, and most certainly it wont be the Windows that we know from the desktop. And most certainly that also means that if its a Microsoft operating system, it will be running an IE version that is different from the desktop.
But is there any way youre trying to change that paradigm among designers?
Were trying to inform people in a positive way. Were also telling them they can save a lot of time and energy. Now all the browsers in the mainstream currently have at least some CSS support. … IE is probably the one that is most lacking at the time, but even if you use IE at the lowest ground, if you then utilize the standards you can make very powerful pages and these pages will most likely, if you think about it and do it right, also be able to work on mobile screens. …
They have choices in a way. Either they deal with this now or deal with this later. Either they can go with the WAP way, which most people dont want to do, or they can code once and have it look beautifully across the board using Web standards, and its future proof. A lot of large organizations and professional people are starting to do this.
Where are you market-share-wise on the mobile side of things?
It depends on how you define the market. You can talk about three groups of browsers. You have WAP browsers; you have iMode, which they are using in Japan; and then you have full Web browsers. If you look at full Web browsers on mobile phones, we are probably the biggest. If you consider everything, then we are tiny in market share. But in the world that … we believe is coming, [where] you get the full Internet and nothing less, then we have a lead in the market. We aim to keep that by providing the best possible technology.
Anything else about where you see Opera going given that youve beefed up your capital side of the business?
What this means is that well work even harder. Well hire even more people. … About 50 percent of our people are from other regions, and theyre not coming here normally for the weather. … Youll be seeing Opera on more devices, and well have even more rapid development on the desktop side.
You guys dont have any U.S. office at this point?
We have some representatives in the U.S. but not much of a formal office.
Do you see that in the future?
We are expanding, so that may well happen. Were also expanding in the East, in Japan and China. … In a way the U.S. market is the market we want to be [in]. The U.S. is a very important market, its a huge market and we dont see ourselves succeeding without the U.S. market. Its part of our strategy to be very visible here, and we will increase our visibility in any way we can.