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Happy birthday, Opera--you survived

CNET's Charles Cooper says the browser company's success could be a case study for marketing mavens about how boring can be better.

Ten years ago, Jon von Tetzchner and Geir Ivarsoy were researchers at Norway's largest telecom when management shut down their project.

But the two programmers successfully negotiated the rights to the browsing software they had developed at the company and then struck out on their own. And so it was that Opera Software got its start.

Opera never generated the buzz of one-time high-fliers like Netscape. But unlike many belonging to the class of 1995, von Tetzchner and Ivarsoy are still at the helm to celebrate their company's 10-year anniversary--and this despite the challenges of surviving the Internet bust, a global IT recession and, of course, Microsoft.

Considering the odds, this is quite a story. How many of the tech hucksters touting the next big thing really offered something special? I can list the number of ohmygoshyougottaseethis! Internet breakthroughs on a half page. Web browsing did not figure among the entries. One of the reasons why I came to Opera Software (in much the same way I became a Firefox fan) had to do with my mounting frustration waiting for Microsoft to do something interesting with Internet Explorer.

Opera has kept its code small and flexible.

After leveraging a desktop monopoly into a corresponding browser monopoly, Microsoft promptly turned its energy and attention elsewhere. That left an opening for Opera, which cultivated an audience by attending to needs that simply were not being met by the industry's reigning hegemon. Even more remarkable, the company carved a niche in the absence of a multimillion-dollar advertising budget.

Opera has kept its code small and flexible. That's helped the company port applications to the mobile and set-top box markets. If you believe--as I do--that the biggest future growth is going to come from non-PC devices, that's the smart play.

Marketing mavens around the world should take note: Boring sometimes can be better, especially when the market leader treats its users with benign neglect.

"Things are going very well," said von Tetzchner, who swung by's office a few weeks back. A sober, low-key Norwegian, von Tetzchner said that Opera now logs about 100,000 downloads each day. Steve Ballmer's not losing sleep over Opera. Still, it's a respectable number.

"It's not only about spending money," he said, dismissing suggestions that Opera was doomed to come up with the short end of the stick against Microsoft--a company whose R&D budget dwarfs the gross domestic product of many nations.

"It's a question of what is your focus, how you do it, and what you are trying to solve," he said. "We've always focused on one thing, and that is the end user."

Self-serving, though entirely sensible.

In part, Netscape self-destructed because it failed to establish the internal controls and practices that might have helped it step clear of the landmines Microsoft planted in its way. But if Microsoft made a point of specifically targeting Opera, would its fate turn out any differently?

That's good fodder for a bar debate. For his part, though, von Tetzchner isn't particularly worked up by the prospect of a direct collision with Microsoft.

"Microsoft hasn?t really improved on their browser for five years," he said. "That's a long time to not update a product and especially when it's the most-used product in the world. I mean, if you try to actually look at it, it is really the most-used product in the world and there are security issues with it."

I usually don't lend credence to those sorts of statements. But Microsoft is far from overcoming its security struggles. Internet Explorer 7, planned as the company's next big browser update, remains in beta testing. All the while, security breaches involving Microsoft's browser continue.

What's more, Opera can count on a number of people who are always going to look for the alternative to the mainstream offering. And some folks just plainly hate Microsoft no matter what.

When IE 7 finally does reach the market, might that be a game changer? Clearly, Opera will face all sorts of new pressures. But the experience of 10 years has taught von Tetzchner that his company must keep innovating or its curtains. Opera just does not enjoy a large enough margin of error to fall behind Microsoft.