Ex-Opera CEO composes Vivaldi, a new Web browser

It's unlikely to dethrone major names like Chrome and IE, but CEO Jon von Tetzchner hopes Vivaldi will attract power users who want a full-featured PC browser.

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4 min read

The Vivaldi browser logo
Vivaldi Technologies

Startup Vivaldi Technologies debuted a new browser Tuesday, a technical preview version designed more to attract users of fifth-place Opera than to dethrone leading browsers like Google's Chrome.

Perhaps the world doesn't need another browser. But Jon S. von Tetzchner, Vivaldi's chief executive and co-founder, believes there's room in the market. And maybe he should know: he formerly held both those jobs at Norway-based Opera Software, which launched its browser in 1996 and made a business out of it, even though the Web browser market at the time was dominated by Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Navigator.

"Most browser makers in the market are trying to make a limited browser, maybe with extensions. But that is not what everyone wants," von Tetzchner said. "As an example, there are still about 20 million people still using Opera 12, even though that browser is more than three years old. There is a need for a browser for the tech user, the user that wants more from their browser."

Von Tetzchner evidently thinks there's money to be made correcting what he sees as Opera's missteps. In 2014, when Opera closed its My Opera site for blogs, email, online chat and forums, Vivaldi launched its own community site to pick up the My Opera refugees. With the Vivaldi Technical Preview 1, the company hopes to attract disgruntled Opera browser fans and, like other browser developers, make money by referring people to search engines that share the resulting search-ad revenue.

The browser market is as tough as it's ever been, with aggressive investments from Google, Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple into products not just for PCs but for phones and tablets, too. Even as programmers direct many of their resources toward mobile apps, the Web remains a fundamental part of computing, and advancing standards are making websites and Web apps steadily more sophisticated.

That's why there's such an effort to improve browser speed, security and features: in many ways, the browser is an operating system, and today's tech giants want as much influence as possible over that technology foundation.

Vivaldi isn't the only browser maker in the mood for a fresh start. Microsoft's new Project Spartan, debuting with Windows 10 later this year, spans mobile devices and personal computers and rips out support for older Internet Explorer browsing modes for a svelter experience. And Firefox maker Mozilla is pushing to bring a browser to iOS, an operating system where Firefox doesn't run today.

Vivaldi lets people organize browser tabs visually down the left edge of the screen.
Vivaldi lets people organize browser tabs visually down the left edge of the screen. Vivaldi Technologies

Opera, which ranks in fifth place on desktop computers with about 1.4 percent of global usage, went through a major transition as the company scrapped the Presto engine at its heart and moved instead to the open-source Blink and Chromium software from Google. Blink and Chromium are the foundations of Google's Chrome, but the software can be built into other browsers, too; Russian search site Yandex also picked Google's technology for the foundation of its Yandex Browser.

Opera's transition left some features behind, and that's where von Tetzchner hopes to capitalize.

Vivaldi Technical Preview 1 includes an interface for issuing written commands, notes that let people annotate Web pages with tags and screenshots, a refurbished and visual bookmark system, and tab stacks to help people with lots of browser tabs stay organized. And keeping the same name from an Opera feature, it'll offer a "speed dial" tool to reach favorite sites quickly.

"People chose to use Opera because of the feature set it had to offer and because they liked the company. Opera has moved on and has defined a new target market," he said. "We aim to provide a browser for those former Opera users that want more from their browser and all others who want the same."

Von Tetzchner isn't the only former Opera employee at Vivaldi. "There are about 25 people at Vivaldi, while the technical team is 18 people. Half of them are former Opera people," he said.

Vivaldi co-founder Jon S. von Tetzchner
Vivaldi co-founder Jon S. von Tetzchner Stephen Shankland/CNET

The initial browser runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. Mobile versions will follow, but Vivaldi doesn't have details yet, von Tetzchner added.

Mobile is a major challenge. Apple's Safari, a fourth-place browser on personal computers, commands influence with programmers by virtue of its widespread use on iPhone and iPad devices running Apple's iOS operating system. Google has been working hard to improve its mobile version of Chrome, and Mozilla has not only a mobile browser effort but an entire browser-based mobile operating system.

Opera remains relevant in mobile browsing too, though it's struggled to carry forward its relevance as the smartphone market transitions from more primitive operating systems to iOS and Google's Android. Opera offers a variety of mobile browsers, including Opera Mini and the newer Opera Coast.

Conquering browsers funded by giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google is likely impossible. But Opera showed browsing is a big enough market that it was possible to make a business in the giants' shadows. Perhaps Vivaldi will find another such place.

"The browser market has always been challenging, but we are ready for that challenge," von Tetzchner said.