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Gussying up for the Opera

After a decade, CEO Jon von Tetzchner has learned a few lessons about how best to keep Microsoft at bay. Will they work for the next decade? Read on.

Jon von Tetzchner is a big guy who's not afraid of making big claims.

Case in point: Earlier this spring, von Tetzchner vowed to swim from his native Norway to the United States if the Opera 8 browser was downloaded a million times in its first four days of release.

It wasn't even close, and a few days later von Tetzchner had to jump into a "freezing Oslo fjord" to begin his dog paddle to America.

As he celebrates Opera Software's 10th anniversary, co-founder von Tetzchner is naturally ready to make some big claims about the company's next decade. Too big for his britches? Maybe so, but after all the ups and downs of the first decade of the Internet Age, von Tetzchner can lay claim to an accomplishment that's beyond the reach of most of his colleagues from the Class of 1995: His company survived.

CNET News.com recently spoke with von Tetzchner about the future of browser development, Opera's competition with Microsoft and how he plans to morph the company into more than just the "alternative" to the mainstream.

Q: As you consider Opera's future, how much of your user base is made up of people who are always going to look for the alternative because they just hate Microsoft?
Von Tetzchner: Microsoft hasn't really improved on their browser for five years. That's a long time not to update a product and especially when it's the most used product in the world.

Microsoft hasn't really improved on their browser for five years.

But that isn't anything new. What do you think will shake more peoples' thinking to adopt something that is not in the mainstream?
Von Tetzchner: When it actually comes down to governments saying, "Hey, there is a security problem," then things will change.

The next version of Internet Explorer is supposed to have enhanced security features, and Microsoft says that will take care of most of the complaints people have had with IE. Let's assume for the sake of argument that that's true. Where does that leave Opera?
Von Tetzchner: What you're describing is, I think, an unrealistic situation. I don't think Microsoft is capable--or even willing--to fix their security issues. If they do, it's great. I think it's good for the Internet and for the community that security is good in all browsers.

Now, security is not the real issue why people have been using Opera. Most of it has been because of functionality. We had things like sessions long ago, for example. I don't know about you, but I always have something like 10 or 20 Windows open at any one time, and if I have a power failure, I would like to get those Windows open at the same time--and I do because with Opera it's not a problem. If my machine hangs or there's some kind of problem, I just turn off the machine, turn it on again and I'm there.

How does the presence of alternative browsers like Mozilla and Firefox affect Opera? It seems that you'd all be fighting for that audience of people open to using alternatives to Microsoft.
Von Tetzchner: There are obviously some users who go between Opera and Mozilla. They have Opera one week, Mozilla the next week, and back to Opera....But we have a shared common goal: We would actually like to see open standards prevail.

Has it helped with sites that don't render well in Opera?
Von Tetzchner: There's been some of that. In some cases, sadly, they fix the site for Firefox and not for Opera. Obviously, as our market share grows, the problem becomes less and less. Mozilla is struggling with this. We've struggled with this. I think they've gotten to a certain market share in the United States that it's starting to help them, but there are still a number of sites that don't work.

You still find a lot of sites like that?
Von Tetzchner: Yeah, I don't know why this is the case. Some of these sites are just very bad at getting things to work. We try to make all the major sites work with Opera, but sometimes we really have to jump through hoops to make them work.

Typically, if there is a problem, maybe they have programmed the site around a bug in IE. Then they'll change the site so it works with the IE bug and then it doesn't work in Firefox and Opera. So there's a bit of that. Then there are sites like Microsoft sites that explicitly send bad code and things like that but...

Have you had any serious discussions with any of the big PC vendors about incorporating your browser with their machines?
Von Tetzchner: There hasn't been too much of that.

Will that affect Opera's growth potential?
Von Tetzchner: Well, for 10 years we had 30 to 50 percent growth in revenue from the desktop. I'm hoping we can increase that and we can also increase our market share. Our goal was to increase our market share and then be the No. 2 browser on the desktop. I think that, realistically, being No. 1 on the desktop requires something more dramatic to happen than what has already happened.

How did you choose the name Opera for the company?
Von Tetzchner: We wanted a short, international name. There's a lot of hard work that goes into making Opera. There's multimedia in Opera and we felt that that is a good combination. Later on we actually found out that Opera means work (in Italian), which we also think is correct, because we spend a lot of time tuning the browser.

WAP doesn't really have a future.

Looking ahead, do you see the bulk of your growth coming from Europe, Asia, Africa--in other words, markets outside of the U.S.?
Von Tetzchner: No, we're going to grow in the U.S. It's just taking a little bit of time. We are setting up to be more aggressive in the United States. We'll be doing things in the United States that will make people notice us more. It takes time. For instance, in the Japanese market we didn't even have a Japanese version in 2002. Now we have a very significant brand, which is being used in all the products on the mobile side.

Besides the desktop, where do you see the potential growth coming from?
Von Tetzchner: Mostly mobile, but I think there's a lot of potential in all the markets. The set-top box and TVs and cars and planes--there's a lot of different places where using Web technology makes a lot of sense.

What exactly are your plans to really build out your presence here in the American market?
Von Tetzchner: We're putting more and more people on the ground here in the United States....The mobile market in this country has been trailing the rest of the world. But we expect that there's going to be a total change in the next five years when it comes to browsers and phones. You'll have full browsers like Opera on the phone, and we think we have the strongest product in that market. We're going to push very hard to make sure that we have the market share that we should be having.

In Europe, are you seeing that shift?
Von Tetzchner: There's a significant movement toward this...It's taken a few years, but it's happening now.

Are you seeing real consumer applications yet?
Von Tetzchner: Well, I mean, we were on 8.8 million phones last year, and that's up from 2 million the year before and 200,000 the year before that. So I think there's a definite trend.

Do you expect companies will stop making WAP Web sites and just start doing HTML?
Von Tetzchner: I think that makes a lot of sense. I mean WAP doesn't really have a future. I think most people realize that. With WAP 1, it was a totally separate thing, right. With WAP 2, it's still close to the Web but it's still incompatible. So why have this separate network?

What's likely to change in five years from what we see today in the average browser?
Von Tetzchner: I think there's going to be added a lot of features, but there's going to be more standards and there's going to be more things happening. Microsoft has been stifling this for a long time because in a way, if we add something new, even though it's a standard, it doesn't change anything. Our market share, whether it's 1 percent, or 5 percent or whatever, it doesn't really matter. In that way, we can't change the standards, but now we have a possibility to do so.

This is why Firefox is positive for us, because when the two of us implement a new standard, maybe even together with Apple, then we actually have the possibility to change.

So, are you saying then that the same metaphor for a browser is not really going to radically change?
Von Tetzchner: There are more and more applications coming up. You can actually write full programs with the Web browser. That's one of the changes that have been happening. We want to make it possible to do more advanced things....One of the changes that's going to be happening in the next few years is all these mobile devices and set-top box devices--they don't have the standard screen size of a PC and don't have the standard resolution. Web designers may not have been willing to actually gather for people with accessibility issues, but they will have to gather for this, and the good part is that the side effect of that will be that it will help for accessibility as well.

What's life as a public company like?
Von Tetzchner: I think you can say it's been good. Some of the investors want short-term gains, but I think most of the investors we have are long-term. They understand that what we're doing is something that takes time, that you have to build on things and it's important that we position ourselves correctly.