Opera fires up new browser as engine of change

The Norwegian company thinks it's time for fresh ideas for Web browsers. Later this year it'll reveal an attempt to make them adaptable and intelligent.

Opera Software, a perennial underdog, has launched a new browser project to help get it out of the doghouse.

The project is designed to revamp the basics of how you use a browser, Chief Executive Lars Boilesen said in an interview at the Mobile World Congress show here in Barcelona, Spain.

"I want to add more smart features," with a browser that recognizes whether you're reading news, checking email, or social networking, then adapts to suit the task, Boilesen said. For example, "if you're shopping, you could get recommendations on the side. We're trying to predict that."

The Oslo, Norway-based company began the project toward the end of 2015, and the new browser should arrive later this year.

Browsers have changed little in appearance since Google's Chrome arrived in 2008. Chrome combined the formerly separate boxes for typing Web addresses and for performing searches, and it stripped away browser interface clutter like menus, toolbars and status bars to devote as much space as possible to what's actually on a website.

Opera Software CEO Lars Boilesen at Mobile World Congress

Opera Software CEO Lars Boilesen in 2013.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

A decade ago, efforts by Firefox, Opera and Apple propelled browsers from slow-moving, unexciting technology to the foundation for all the hot new ideas in tech, everything from Google Maps to Facebook social networking. But the mobile revolution, built on Google's Android and Apple's iOS software, has stolen a lot of the attention of developers and companies building new services and tools. The popular Uber service, for instance, lets you hail a car only through its phone app. If Opera succeeds in injecting new life into the browser, you could be spending a lot of your life in your browser again.

Opera Chief Technology Officer Håkon Wium Lie, who leads the project, won't reveal the name of the browser. Boilesen has his own idea for a name, but its prospects look dim. "I call it Opera Smart, but he didn't like it," Boilesen said, laughing. Lie said there are already too many projects and products called "smart."

The vast majority of people stick with the big names in the browser world: Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox. That's been bad news for Opera, which accounts for 0.64 percent of browsing usage right now, according to Net Applications' NetMarketShare figures.

But a new crop of challengers think they can win you over -- or in Opera's case, perhaps, win you back.

Those challengers include Brave, from Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich; Vivaldi, from former Opera CEO Jon S. von Tetzchner; Yandex Browser, from Google's biggest competitor in Russia; and UCweb, a mobile browser that Chinese Internet power Alibaba acquired. Even Microsoft is in the game, trying to move IE users to its new Edge browser.

Opera shareholders, who hold ultimate sway over the company, haven't been happy with Opera's direction. In 2015, the board of directors began looking for a buyer, and in February, they accepted an offer of about $1.2 billion from a Chinese consortium including Internet companies Qihoo 360 and Kunlun. The deal requires shareholder and Chinese government approval, and so far about 35 percent of shareholder votes are in favor, according to Boilesen. He and other executives don't actually have a say: "Management do not have many shares," he said.

The deal has the potential to open Opera's mobile ad business to about 500 million new people, Boilesen said, and to get them using Opera browsers. So far about 350 million people do that, mostly the lightweight Opera Mini product that works even on primitive phones and slow networks. But 150 million are using products for modern Android-based phones, and the number is growing, Boilesen said.

Opera went through tough times earlier in the decade, left behind by the switch to modern phones. One big change was scrapping its own core browser software and adopting Blink, the equivalent from Google's Chrome. It's open-source, meaning anyone can use it, and Opera is the second-largest contributor to the project after Google.

"We've never had as many engineers on the desktop product as we do now," Boilesen said, and the signals so far from the would-be Chinese acquirers suggest that won't change. "They want to invest even more into the engine."

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