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An interview with Opera CEO

April 17, 2005

David Berlind, from Between the Lines – ZD Net, has a lengthy interview with Jon S. von Tetzchner, CEO of Opera Software. In the interview he discusss many topics, mainly with the issues facing Opera Software and its users.

Since the interview is only available in mp3 format and as a podcast, I have compiled a few topics discussed that are of interest to Opera users. Because of the copyright issues involved, I have only taken some of his quotes of each topic. I have also summarized the questions.

When is Opera 8 shipping?
It’s shipping very very soon.

How does Opera expect to compete and sustain interest as a commercial product?
This is a question that we have been asked about 100,000 times during the last 10 years. The reality is we have been competing against free browsers for most of our time, the last 10 years. We survived the browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape, we survived Mozilla coming into the market, and Firefox is just continuing Mozilla’s path. We are competing against Microsoft. And we’re competing, obviously, for some eyeballs with Mozilla and Firefox.

[We are releasing] Opera 8, which is a significant improvement over earlier versions and we think this is going to create a lot of interest. I think a lot of people realize that we have been here for a long time and there is a reason why we’re here. We have a product people like and we will continue to work very hard to continue to have a product people like. And I think that’s our way to survive, thrive, and grow.

Who is the type of customer that buys a browser?
Actually, to be fair, we have a free version of the browser. And that’s what most people that use Opera have. We have more than 10 million active users of Opera, we have a couple million downloads every month, and a fairly active community. And most of those users are using the free browser. But about 100,000 per year decide to buy the browser. And those are the people who can afford it and that would like to actually help the company. I think that most of the people that are buying Opera are saying this is a great piece of software and we want it to continue to flourish so we’re giving you our hard earned 39 dollars to help the company forward.

What makes one browser better than the next?
I think there are a lot of things. One thing is that one size doesn’t really fit all. Specifically if it’s a very simple browser, which most of the browsers in the market are, they are quiet simple. What we have been focusing on is to make a very fast browser. That’s still important to people. Not only in downloading and showing pages, but [also] in operation. There are a lot of tiny little details that we do to make your life easier when you’re using the internet for more than 10 minutes per day. Most people are using the internet a lot more than that. And something that makes their life easier is worth while.

We have a lot of things like that, some of them which have been picked up by the competition. Things like the tabbed browsing, where having multiple browser windows inside one, that we have had since version 1 of Opera, since 1994.

We’ve taken that a lot of steps further. So for instance, in Opera, you can save sessions with multiple windows. You can then continue with a session latter on multiple windows, which is very different from the fact when you start with just one page, which I think is very strange. Starting with one page is like someone who cleans up your office when you’re going out and then you get back and there is only one piece of paper in your office every morning. With Opera you just continue working.

And what we have now is that you can undelete windows. So if you by mistake close a window and you think you’ve lost it, with Opera you can undelete it. So you get the window up and continue to browse there with all the history.

All the small details is what makes the difference between choosing a well thought out browser and just a browser were the real point is just to browse.

How does Opera communicate with the world that it has got all these cool features?
The reality is that we have all these active users of Opera. And they do want to get the message out. When you have a product that gains a following, which we have with hundreds of thousands of people engaging in a community, and they go and tell their friends about what’s great about Opera. That makes their friends start to use it, and they give it to their families and others.

Obviously with don’t have the marketing powers of Microsoft, but it can be seen that if you have a good enough product that people will enthuse about it and they will use it. And I think that’s what happening with Opera.

We are happy with people not paying, we are happy with people just downloading it and using it, they don’t have to pay. If they want to pay, great. We are going for markets here, and we do make some money of the free versions as well. So as long as people are using the product we are quiet happy. And we don’t push them to buy it.

How does Opera make money of the free versions?
It displays a little bit of ads. We also have deals with some partners where we have search built into the browser, where we get revenue.

Opera is not only competing against free browsers, but also with the compatibility issue.
I think that in some ways things are easier now than what they used to be. In the old days, if you look at the difference between IE 4 and Netscape 4, the differences were huge. [As a result] the problems for web designers were huge.

Well, that problem has been reduced. Currently it is IE that is holding back, they have the worst standards compliance of all the browsers in the market. We have much better standards compliance, so does Mozilla. And sometimes we actually run into problems because of that.

I think that in the next few years there will be a very significant change. And that’s because people will start to work with mobile devices. We’re seeing that Opera has already shipped more than 10,000 units. There are a lot of phones shipping with Opera. We have devised a Small Screen Rendering (SSR) technology, which helps make normal web pages available on the mobile phone. We designed a lot of technologies for this and I think that what is happening now is that people have to start focusing on that. They have to start focusing on the real fact that standards are going to be more important. Otherwise you will get a total mess; we will actually repeat what happened in the 90s. You go back to the incompatible browsers, because not only do you have the incompatible browsers on the desktop, you also have the mobile to consider with a different form factor.

Why not join forces with Firefox? Why not come up with a better commercial implementation of the source code that is already available?
This is to a certain extent like saying Ford, General Motors, and Volvo you should work together and use just one engine, because that is the one that is the best. The reality is that our [browser] engine is definitely better at going into mobile devices. We would also say that we are doing things at the User Interface (UI) side, which is being copied. So we are being innovated.

People have been saying we should be using the IE engine on windows, like Netscape is doing, NEVER. We can’t do that, we have pride in what we do. We work very hard to build the best browser and the best engine.

That doesn’t mean we can’t work with Mozilla and others. We are working with them, but on standards. We are working with both Mozilla and Apple on standards. We are working through the W3C and through the WHAT Working Group, where we are working on extensions to the web standards. The combined might of the three is big enough that we can push something that we couldn’t push alone. And that’s a benefit to all of us.

We try to push Microsoft to support the same standards. Because, obviously, what we all really want is to have products to do the same thing but they don’t have to be implemented by the same company. Otherwise, we’re kind of back to the same Microsoft solution, which is one company makes a solution and either you like it or don’t.

I would rather see that there are different implementations, each with their own benefit. Then we try to solve the standards problems that you should be able to choose which ever browser you like. There will be differences in the user interfaces and also in how they display the pages, quickly or faster. But you don’t have to use one engine, because that limits innovation, it limits quality, and I think competition is good.

There is an understanding that Google’s applications work better in firefox. Is it true?
We are working with the other browser companies when it comes to standards. So if Google does something with Firefox, which makes firefox work better with Google, then we work with Google to make the same with Opera.

Is there a way to make Opera compatible with some of the non-standard implementations of the web?
Actually we do that. We probably spend as much time on handling non-standards issues as standards. We take standards very seriously, but the reality is that 95% of the pages do not follow standards.

Typically the problem is with the pages that don’t follow the standards and you have to make sure that you handle that situation the same way as the other browsers do, which is not so well defined.

Then there are extensions that Microsoft has made, such as DHTML. You have the DOM interface, which we support quiet extensively. But then there is DHTML, and we spent quiet a lot of time handling it. There are certain things that we cannot or will not do, just like Mozilla won’t, which is ActiveX. ActiveX will only work on Windows, it’s a security liability. There are a lot of reasons why we don’t want to do ActiveX.

But anything that we can do cross-platform, we bend quiet far to get it to work. Again, still maintaining that standards are very important.

What can Opera Software do about websites that have compatibility issues with the Opera browser?
What we are trying to do is to make it easier for people to report issues. Then we analyze those [reports] to see if it’s a problem we can fix. If it’s not something we can fix, we contact the site. In Opera 8 we produced a way to tell certain sites [through User Agents] that you are this [Opera] and to certain sites that you are that [Internet Explorer].

Is the Acid2 test by Hakon Lie, Opera CTO, endorsed by the company? Or is done on his own?
All of this is important; Hakon is fighting for standards that are important. I think in a way, the point of these tests that are made, is not really to take Microsoft and put them into a corner — well part of it is.

The reality of those tests is that they have been written in a way that they don’t even work in Opera and firefox. I think the point it that everyone has to improve. We should be stretching to provide all of us the best standards support; that means Opera and firefox need to improve. But mostly Microsoft needs to improve, because they have the worst standards support of any browser.

Hakon is involved in the W3C actively. We have a number of people actively working in the W3C. We are also actively involved in a lot of standards organizations. But when it comes to the Web Standards Project (WaSP) group, they are separate from us; they have nothing to do with us except they share some of the same goals, which are web standards.

Opera in the United States (US).
The US is very important to us. We are building up our presence in the US; we are now setting up offices in the US. We have an Austin (Texas) office and we have a Carlsbad California office, we are staffing up.

I think people will be noticing Opera a lot more in the US, not only in places like the mobile, but also on the desktop also with Opera 8.

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