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Singing an African tune

In the second of a two-part interview, Opera co-founder Jon von Tetzchner talks to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK about the thinking behind Opera 11, the role of the developing world in its design, and the future of browsing.
Opera 11 offers new features aplenty. Many are equivalent to offerings in other browsers, such as support for Extensions, equivalent to plug-ins and add-ons we’ve seen elsewhere. Some, however, truly set Opera apart.

These include the ability to change themes – which dictate the look and feel of the browser frame – more quickly, easily and effectively than in rival browsers; the Speed Dial function, which allows favourite web sites to be accessible within a speed-dial type tab; and, most significantly of all, tab stacking, which allows for more organised browsing across multiple sites.

The idea behind Speed Dial was typical of the Opera approach. Co-founder Jon von Tetzchner explains:
“The thinking was that you’d like easy access to your favourite pages, for them to be visible, and to be synced with your mobile browser. We started with nine speed dials because that is what you have on your mobile phone, but you can set your preferences for more.Good user interface design says: “don’t have too many options at the same time”.

“We’re always trying to make life easier for our users. Bookmarks do serve a purpose and, in some ways,this is another way to do it. But this is more visible and easier, accessible, easy to use, and easy for both technical and non-technical people. Bookmarks are more hidden and difficult to deal with.”

Greater usability and a faster browser are two elements that have gone down well in the developing world. Particularly in the former Soviet Union and in Africa, the Opera consciousness of poor connectivity has struck a chord.

“Our biggest user base is in countries like Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia,” says Von Tetzchner. “I think it’s a lot about community. The community has found our browser and started to spread it. I was there a few years ago when our market share was a lot smaller, around 10%. Now its 30-40%.”

Indeed, according to StatCounter, Opera has 45.6% market share in Belarus, way ahead of the number two, Firefox, which has only 25%. Internet Explorer is further behind, at 22%.

“The reasons they gave when I was in Belarus are ones that would be appreciated in South Africa. A lot of it is about the browser being efficient, especially on bandwidth, and especially if you’re paying by the Megabyte. They mentionedthe typical features that are popular in Opera, like usability and the feature set. But being bandwidth efficient was particularly important. We already had Turbo in Opera, but in 11, we’ve done work to make it even better. On a slow connection, you’ll see an even more noticeable improvement.”

Turbo, he explains, always providedgreater compression on a poor connection, but now works better in situations where connectivity is “intermediary, with a flaky connection”.

“Before, the browser was more likely to wait. Now, it ensures that while you are waiting for one thing, you don’t wait too long. Because the link is going through our servers to do the compression, we can play a greater role in a better end result.”

VonTetzchner was in South Africa a few months ago for the Mobile Web in Africa 2010 conference ( (for which Gadget was a media partner). The visit did not directly influence the design of Opera 11, but confirmed much of what Opera had believed the market required.

“Clearly, whenever we visit a region, we get feedback from end-users. For the most part it was reinforcing the message we’d heard before, and reinforced our continued focus on slower connectivity, and building a browser that works on any kind of machine. Clearly there is a lot of focus on mobile in South Africa, both with connectivity and penetration.”

“The issue in South Africa, as in the rest of the world, continues to be that you have issues with bandwidth, where functionality like browser efficiency is crucial.”

VonTetzchner won’t be drawn on what future versions of Opera may hold, but acknowledges that tablet computing will be important.
“Very clearly there will be more focus on touch input. That’s the big change happening now and we’ve been dealing with that. The first tablet was released ten years ago, so it’s not really new to us, but it’staken time for the technology to reach this point and for touch-screen to reach its current capability.

“There is a lot of opportunity for us in tablet computing.It’s another device with a lot of sales potential, and clearly a device that will be used in mobile networks, so it’s a device that requires an efficient browser and needs a good user interface. It is something we will focus on.”

Talking of tablets, of course, the other major evolution occurring in computing is the rise of the app, or mini-application, which is now proliferating on smartphones and tablets. Will they replace web browsing on the desktop? VonTetzchner doubts it.

“If you look at the desktop, people are using native applications much less than before. What’s been happeninginstead is that people are using web-based technologies, and for the most part inside the browser. We’ve been providing widgets for some time and it is reasonable that you will be accessing apps outside the browser, but I believethat most apps will be accessed within the browser.”

If he’s wrong, there’s always Opera Mini: the mobile browser of choice. It is already evolving into an app on smartphones that offer a shoddy browsing experience on their built-in options. On the strength of Opera 11 and VonTetzchner’s vision, however, it seems that there is still life and future left in the desktop browser.

(Read Part 1 of this interview, The browser that came in from the cold, here)

·         Follow Arthur Goldstuck on Twitter on @art2gee

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