What's an ex-CEO to do when he thinks his former employer has taken the wrong path?
In the case of Jon S. von Tetzchner, co-founder and former chief executive of Opera Software, the answer is to launch a company that picks up where the old company is leaving off. He and 19 other ex-Opera employees have launched a new site called Vivaldi aimed at people who want a replacement for the My Opera community site, which Opera is closing on March 1.
"What we have decided is we cannot leave users like that. This a group of people who helped us build Opera," said von Tetzchner, who invested his own money to launch Vivaldi.
Vivaldi is free and gives people a place to blog, host photos, chat, send e-mail, and participate in forums. The My Opera service had 10 million users, von Tetzchner said, and he clearly aspires to build Vivaldi to something like that scale.
"You can reach that kind of numbers if you provide great services," he said. "It takes a bit of time. One thing I learned is patience."
Vivaldi opened for business quietly a month ago and so far has signed up thousands of members, von Tetzchner said. Membership is "growing nicely," and he decided to begin publicizing the service.
Taking on the big names
Vivaldi is launching in a very different environment than My Opera, which arrived in 2006. People had alternatives then for chatting and blogging and sharing photos, but today's array of options -- sites like Facebook, Flickr, WordPress, Tumblr, Twitter, Blogger, and YouTube are more mature and already have thriving communities.
Opera had those sites in mind when it decided to shut down My Opera. In its announcement of the move last October, the company said, "Over the years, we've seen social media and blogging sites pop up, which offer more and better features than we could possibly maintain...The explosion of these sites and the amount of resources we need to maintain our own service has changed our outlook on My Opera. We had a good run for many years, but we believe your content could have a better home elsewhere."
Von Tetzchner isn't blind to the challenge, but Vivaldi will build more beyond the features it has today.
"It's the first step," he said. "I think this is a pretty good offering even at the start. It's not where we're going to be eventually. We will be adding features to it. That's significant when you're getting it for free with no ads to bother you."
If there aren't ads, how will Vivaldi make money?
"We'll provide services over time that will generate revenue for us," perhaps through some paid premium services. And there are other ways such as affiliate deals where the site can provide links to search engines like Google or e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay. In such deals, a Web publisher typically gets a percentage of revenue derived from the links to those sites.
The closure of My Opera isn't the only bone von Tetzchner has to pick with Opera.
He also thinks the company is too focused on mobile advertising and spent too much money on the acquisition of the SkyFire video compression technology. But his biggest complaint is that the company has, in his opinion, squandered its reputation for building a browser with cutting-edge features and high performance.
"If you look at the number of new features during the last four years, then compare that to the four years before that, it's a very significant difference," he said. That's what led Opera to scrap its own Presto browser engine in 2013 and move instead to Google's open-source Blink project that's also at the heart of Chrome.
"I would have kept Presto," von Tetzchner. "The decision to move away from Presto was taken after years of negligence. They should have increased the investment to stay competitive. They stopped investing in the engine, then they took the consequences and threw it away."
Opera, unsurprisingly, sees things differently.
"We changed the rendering engine, but for most users that doesn't matter at all," said Hakon Wium Lie, Opera's chief technology officer. "That's the reason we decided to make the switch: we decided that it wasn't a competitive advantage anymore."
And, he added, the decision wasn't a mere accounting move to cut expenses. "It was done by engineers," he said, who believed "they could do more meaningful work."
Opera now has good relationships with the engineers from Blink and the WebKit project from which it was spawned, he said. "We think that's the way for us to contribute and move the Web forward," Wium Lie said.
The browser market is highly competitive, with a reawakened Microsoft and Google now pushing the Web agenda hard using Chrome.
But it was also very competitive for the rest of Opera's history, he argued. If Opera had stuck to its guns, it could have reached its goal of reaching 500 million users by the end of 2013 instead of plateauing at 300 million, where it is today, von Tetzchner said.
"I think it could have been stronger," von Tetzchner said.