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The browser that came in from the cold

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With the release of Opera 11, the new browser from the Norwegian pioneers in the field, Opera demonstrates an understanding of users in regions where fast and stable connectivity is not taken for granted. In the first of a two-part interview, Opera co-founder Jon von Tetzchner talks to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK about market share and browser strategy.

It was way back in 1996, when two giants by the name of Microsoft and Netscape were at each other’s throats in the first great browser war, that newcomers from Norway dared to enter the fray.

They were called Opera, and they offered something the other browsers could not match: a small footprint on the user’s computer at a time when capacity was limited and applications were getting more and more bloated. It was a breath of fresh air. But Oslo was not Silicon Valley, and Opera was always seen as a minnow that would be swatted aside by the whales. Yet, 14 years later, it is still around, still growing, and still pushing the envelope.

Speaking from a freezing Oslo (the Opera browser’s weather panel showed it was -17 degrees Celsius), founder Jon von Tetzchner’s voice was glowing with warmth about the new version of his baby. It was born while Von Tetzchner was member of a research group at Telenor, the Norwegian statetelco. With GeirIvars√∏y, he developed a browsing system called MultiTorg Opera, but Telenor dropped the project and allowed the duo to take over the rights. They went out on their own as Opera, and today employ 500 people to keep developing it.

Yet, Opera has a mere 3.14% of global browser market share, according to Netmarketrshare.com. That is divided up between the Opera web browser, at 2.2%, and the Opera Mini mobile browser, at 0.94%.

The obvious question is: why bother?

‚The way I see it, we are growing a lot, in multiple locations and on multiple devices,‚ says Von Tetzchner.‚In South Africa we are the number one mobile browser by far. Globally, we’ve got more than 50-million users on desktop browsers and it is growing steadily all the time.‚

In mobile browsing, according to StatCounter, Opera narrowly holds the number one position globally, with 21.85% market share, followed by BlackBerry on 19.05%.Both iPhone and Nokia are also major contenders, however, each enjoying a little more than 16% share. Android also poses a serious challenge, coming from almost nowhere a year ago to 11.27% share at the end of November 2010.

‚We’ve always had a situation with big competitors in the market, and the question has always been,how are you going to compete? Are you not going to disappear soon? That’s been the question since 1995, when it was Netscape and Microsoft. Since then we’ve seen browsers from Oracle, Apple, Symantec.

He admits it was tough at first, facing such giants. But it was equally obvious that one could not predict what would happen next. The collapse of Netscape between 1996 and 2000 was as unexpected as it was avoidable. Netscape was the world’s dominant browser until it demanded that ISPs pay a license fee to include it in their starter kits. ISPs switched en masse to Internet Explorer, and Netscape was a dead browser walking.

‚I remember when Netscape fell off the cliff,‚ says Von Tetzchner. ‚Then people said we’d be crushed next. But we just continue on our growth path, even on the desktop, through the years. Of 150-million people using Opera , more than 50-million are on the desktop. It’s a nice growing group of people. Every time we add a new browser with new functionality, we see an increase.‚

(Click here to read Part 2 of this interview: Singing an African tune)

· Follow Arthur Goldstuck on Twitter on @art2gee

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