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Vivaldi mobile browser due in 2019 -- but no ad blocking

CEO Jon Von Tetzchner also calls for privacy regulation to block companies from tracking us online. Also coming soon: Vivaldi's email software.

Vivaldi CEO Jon Von Tetzchner
Vivaldi Technologies founder Jon von Tetzchner
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Jon Von Tetzchner doesn't need to crush Google Chrome. If he can get a few million people to use his Vivaldi browser, that should suffice.

The chief executive of browser maker Vivaldi Technologies -- and previously leader and co-founder of Opera, too -- leads an effort to build a browser with an ultimately configurable interface so people can set it up just how they like it.

How configurable? In settings, you'll have to scroll to see all the options for controlling tabs, and that's just one of 17 pages for customization.

He's betting enough people will like that approach that they'll start running his browser, with their searches producing about a dollar per person per year through search-engine partnerships.

"We need a few million dollars to break even," Von Tetzchner said in an exclusive interview with CNET about his 45-person, volunteer-assisted startup.

Vivaldi, built by programmers in Oslo, Norway, and Reykjavik, Iceland, is worth a shot if you find Chrome, Firefox, Safari or other browsers too confining. It's a great time for experimenting with browsers to find one that works for you, in part because so many browsers, including Vivaldi, have spawned from Google's open-source Chromium foundation.

Vivaldi just released version 2.4, letting you move icons all around the interface and set up different user profiles so you can share a computer more easily or separate your work and personal browsing. And it's even got a calculator now built into its quick command system for firing off actions with a few keystrokes.

There's more to come, including an Android version of Vivaldi and a standalone email module that taps into services like Gmail. Both of those should arrive by the end of the year, Von Tetzchner said. He shared his thoughts on Vivaldi's products, privacy stance, and views about Google Chrome in an interview with CNET's Stephen Shankland. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What's Vivaldi's main selling point?
Von Tetzchner: We put the user at the center. A lot of people say something like that, but we actually do. We listen to the requirements of individuals. We built in the flexibility so everyone should be able to get the browser that they need and want.

We're also not engaging in data collection, because that wouldn't fit with putting the user at the center.

Vivaldi 2.4 adds a calculator

Vivaldi 2.4 adds a calculator, accessible from its quick-command system that can be triggered with a computer's F2 key or Cmd/Ctrl-E.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

You could argue that customizable interfaces are for power users. What fraction of people are power users -- 2 percent, 10 percent, 50 percent?
Von Tetzchner: It's quite a lot of people. We're not really saying that we are only for power users. If I'm setting this up for my mother, I'll put some speed dials [website shortcuts] in place, and I might do something with the interface scaling [zoom]. In the early days [at Opera] we had a user named Brian. He was only able to use a computer with a rod on his head. Do you want to tell him to use a mouse? It doesn't work that way. He gave us input on the keyboard shortcuts and the like. We adapt to the needs of everyone.

Some see email software as passé -- web-based services won the war. Why build it directly into Vivaldi? I see from your own email signature you're using an internal build.
Von Tetzchner: It's really powerful. There's a group of people that needs an email client where webmail is not an option. It's typically people with more than one account. It's quite a lot of people.

We had this at Opera. It worked really well. They killed it.

When will the email client arrive? This year?
Von Tetzchner: Yes, I would think so.

Will it beat Vivaldi's mobile browser to market?
Von Tetzchner: Mobile just might beat it. Both are getting a lot of attention. I'm running both of them. I've been using the mailer for quite some time. It needs stabilization, and there's some functionality that's still missing.

Will the mobile browser maintain your ethos of flexibility?
Von Tetzchner: Yes. The first version will not have everything that you want in it or that we want in it. But it will have enough to differentiate. Just like on the desktop, mobile browsers are limited in their approach, but even more. We want the opposite.

Brave, Safari and Firefox are more aggressively blocking third-party companies from tracking people on websites. Are we finally becoming more aware of the web's privacy problems?
Von Tetzchner: Third parties can buy access to us so they can push our buttons. That's highly problematic. It's really hard to fix it on the browser side. We found at Opera that when we tried to block things, we would break things, then the users would be unhappy.

What is needed is regulation. Here in the US, there's not a lot of hope right now. There's more chance of the European Union doing something. Over time, people here will want to see a change.

Are you enabling tracking through your own business? You're driving people straight to Google search.
Von Tetzchner: We actually don't have a deal with Google. We're working with Duck Duck Go and Bing.

Search isn't the problem. The problem is that you're being followed wherever you go. The fact that you visit these sites and chat with these people and have these opinions is not something that should be noted anywhere.

What about blocking ads? Millions of users and some browsers are doing that.
Von Tetzchner: Ad blocking is a complex matter for us. We should give the users what they want. At the same time, the internet is built on free content, and you lose some of that if you take away the ads. Thus we are not providing an ad blocker ourselves, but users can download extensions.

With tracking, the situation is different. We believe this should be regulated, but we may also offer more ways to block tracking in the future in the browser.

Opera was the first to move to Google's browser foundation, then came Vivaldi, Brave and Samsung Internet. Now Microsoft Edge is coming. Should we worry Chrome is too dominant?
Von Tetzchner: I've said all along that having multiple browser engines is preferable. It was wrong with Opera to give up [its own browser engine, Presto]. It was a massive, massive, massive mistake. That would not have happened if I had been in charge. It's good the Mozilla [Firefox] team is still around.

Do we need a neutral Chromium Foundation to control the software?
Von Tetzchner:  I don't see that happening. Google is the dominant player there. I doubt they want to see it controlled by anybody else.

With Chrome on Android right now in Europe, we're seeing a redux of the browser choice that European antitrust authorities forced on Microsoft Windows computers in 2010. Will that be equally uninfluential this time?
Von Tetzchner: It's difficult to say. I really want to give the European Commission credit for actually wanting to do something about competition. I wish they would do even more.

Such as?
Von Tetzchner: Opening platforms like [Apple's] iOS. It would be great if we could use the same code on iOS as we do on Android. But instead you have to use Apple's WebKit [browser engine].

You've said your goal isn't to conquer the world. How many users do you have and how many do you need?
Von Tetzchner: We need between 3 million and 5 million. We are above a million -- 1.2 million active monthly users or somewhere.

If you do the calculation, we're basing our income on about $1 per user per year. We need a few million dollars to break even. We are a lean organization.

First published March 30, 5 a.m. PT

Update, March 31, 7:48 a.m. PT: Updates headline.