For Opera, smaller really is better

CTO Håkon Wium Lie says the company's moving faster on the tech front than much larger rival Microsoft.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
8 min read
Håkon Wium Lie must feel a special kinship with the "Band of Brothers" soliloquy that Shakespeare reserves for Henry V. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," the king proclaims before his men head into battle.

With all of Microsoft's riches and power behind it, Internet Explorer has dominated the Web browser market since Netscape's defeat in the late 1990s. But as CTO of Opera Software, Wium Lie's job is to figure out how to incorporate the best technology possible in his company's software--and in this, he's stolen a beat on Opera's much bigger rival.

For much of the last year, Microsoft has banged the drum for the arrival of Internet Explorer 7. In the meantime, Wium Lie says Opera has been able to move faster than Microsoft on sundry browser issues such as tabbed browsing, speed, privacy and security.

At last count, Opera had only about 1 percent of the Web browser market, so Microsoft's not exactly quaking in its boots. Still, Opera executives say the future will be increasingly dominated by browsers found in non-PC devices, especially on the proliferating number of handheld gadgets combining computing power with telephony.

Wium Lie, who works out of the company's home base in Norway, recently visited San Francisco, where he caught up with CNET News.com editors to discuss the state of browser technology.

Q: What is the latest target date for Opera 10?
Wium Lie: I can't give you an exact date just yet. We're releasing things all the time. We have some things that are going in there, and there are others things we don't know whether to include. I think you can expect things like phishing to be a focus. But whether we wait for Opera 10 to do that or do an update on Opera 9, I don't know.

In terms of downloads, where are you now with 9?
Wium Lie: We have about 10 million users worldwide, and that's about 1 percent of the market. But what's been a focus for Opera for a long time, of course, is the mobile world. Other browsers leave their users behind on the desktop, whereas we can take them along.

You can start, for example, reading a CNET article on your laptop in the morning and then, as you run out and catch a bus or subway, you can continue reading that article on your phone; the data can follow you. We're not quite there yet, but that's another point that's going to be a focus in our development--to try to synchronize data between the mobile world and the stationary world.

It's like you have a used car--what are you going to do with it? Are you going to get rid of it and get a new one? Or are you going to give it a paint job? I think (what) Microsoft has done here is given (IE) a paint job.

As you think about Opera going mobile, there's always the size issue regarding PDAs. How do you get around that?
Wium Lie: Yeah, for example, it's very hard to type on these small units. The keyboards are getting better, but it's still hard to type a URL on a mobile unit. But you probably typed the URL that you're going to go to on your desktop, so what would make sense is for those URLs, those things that you've typed, including your passwords and shortcuts and history--all that to be transferred automatically to your cell phone so you don't have to do the typing again.

We have the site, Myopera.com, where our users can publish their photos and do a bit of blogging, etc., and we can see that as being a storage point for all your settings, so that is going to then follow you.

Why do you think Opera offers a better solution than Internet Explorer on mobile devices?
Wium Lie: Microsoft has mobile browsers in their mobile platform as well, but it's a different code base. It's not IE 6; it's a totally different product, really. They have a big, loaded code base. They cannot possibly code it into something meaningful for the mobile platform, whereas Opera never had the resources to hire hundreds of programmers.

We're very focused on maintaining our code base so that it can go into all these wonderful new units that are coming out and as the Web moves to new applications, we want to make sure that these applications run on mobile units as well.

How many people does Opera now employ?
Wium Lie: Three hundred people in total.

As a technologist, can you give an assessment of the job that Microsoft has done with IE 7?
Wium Lie: It's like you have a used car--what are you going to do with it? Are you going to get rid of it and get a new one? Or are you going to give it a paint job? I think (what) Microsoft has done here is given it a paint job.

It's the same formatting, and it's a Trident engine which, when introduced in IE 4 in 1997, was wonderful. It gave us many things that hadn't been seen on the Web before. And they have introduced things like XHTTP request, for example, so I don't think everything Microsoft does is bad.

But I do think now would have been the right time for them to say, "We haven't maintained this browser for five or six years, and we should really give it a good update." But they haven't.

The chrome around it has changed. They now have tab browsing. Well, Opera invented tab browsing probably 10 years ago, and now it's here with Microsoft. They've fixed some security issues. They've fixed some longstanding bugs, but only a subset of them. These bugs have been reported for years and years, and I think it's been huge cost to the Western world with all these Web designers having to deal with bugs in IE 6.

They had to work long hours to make sure it renders in all versions of IE and also with the standards-centered browsers like Firefox and Safari and Opera. It would have cost Microsoft only a tiny amount of development resources in 2001 and 2002, but they left the problems linger.

Opera's made no bones of the fact that you'd like to take market share from Microsoft. That's a pretty ambitious goal. Are you making any progress?
Wium Lie: We've been able to retain a 1 percent share across the whole world. In some markets, it's much higher. For example, in Australia, it's 5 percent, and in Russia, it's 10 percent. So you know, if I can challenge America here, like in the space race in the '50s: Russia is ahead of you, and you need to catch up! (Laughing.)

Of course, on the phones, we have a very different market situation. There we are, the market leader. We're shipping Opera in all sorts of phones; we're strong in the Japanese market. We've launched Opera Mini, which is a neat little application that enables the Web to be on almost every cell phone out there now.

I think the mobile market might be what forces Microsoft down from their dominant position. I'm sure a lot of people will just accept IE 7 as it comes along, and they will force it on people by putting it as part of a security update.

Could it be that most people will say, "Well, it's included with the operating system, so let's just use it"?
Wium Lie: Yeah. Indeed, our big challenge is the distribution channel.

Have you made any headway with the PC box makers?
Wium Lie: I don't think I have anything to report there. We need to convince users that we have a superior product that's free, that has many of the features that users would like to have. For example, we offer one feature, which is underestimated--or maybe just people don't know about. With Opera, a few mouse clicks let you delete all traces of what you've been doing.

What about your plans for rolling out more widgets? It seems that there are some gaps, with certain countries not represented.
Wium Lie: That's what the widget creators decide. We don't control them. That's like writing Web pages. It's not up to us; it's up to the widget creators.

Where are you, in terms of developing tools? Has the company has been talking about doing more in that sphere?
Wium Lie: I think you will see things like debuggers and a developers' toolbar. I think it's a very good idea to help support the developer. It's hard to be a Web developer if you want to ensure interoperability and correctness and things like that.

We want to do our part in helping. I don't think you're going to see a suite of authoring applications from us. I think there are enough other people who are doing AJAX toolkits. We don't have to do that.

Conceptually, as you look at the way operating browsers have been developing, do you think the browser of 2011 will look pretty much the same as it does today?
Wium Lie: It's an interesting question. I think some things are going to remain constant. For example, 10 years ago, I took a bet with somebody about whether HTML would be around 50 years from then. Now there are only 40 years left, but the computers we buy years in the future are going to be able to read the HTML created as of 1996.

Formats are going to be with us. There's so much content there, and there's really no reason to change them: HTML is here to stay; CSS, I hope; XML--all these acronyms that we're dealing with are here. They're going to evolve, but they're basically going to remain part of the same functionality. The user interface--that's the other part. I think the user interface is going to change a whole lot.

How so?
Wium Lie: We're going to see browsers in all sorts of units, not just mobile phones or game consoles or laptops. There's going to be a range of products. As people get addicted to these Web sites like CNET or Slashdot, they're going to want access to those all over. They're not going to be tied to a stationary PC or a laptop. They want ubiquitous access. So we're going to see browsers enter into places that we never thought about before.

Does the line between the browser and media player disappear?
Wium Lie: I think the browser will evolve into a media player. There is no reason why you should have a separate media player from an HTML viewer. Any data you throw at a browser should be able to be handled in a reasonable manner. You need to have some codecs, and there are some patents involved, probably. But I think it can be resolved.