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Was Mac Opera gored on Safari?

update Opera Software says the future of its Mac browser is clouded now that Apple is producing its own, as Apple's efforts threaten to overshadow third-party software vendors.

Read more about Apple's Safari.
update Opera Software may go silent on the Macintosh stage.

The company has expressed significant doubts it will continue producing a browser for the Macintosh operating system, echoing a growing problem for third-party Mac developers as Apple Computer steps up its own application development efforts.

Opera, based in Oslo, Norway, on Tuesday released Opera 7, its first final version of a newly rewritten browser. As usual, the company released a browser for Windows before making available versions for other operating systems.

But this time, the company did not set a date for a Macintosh release, and instead questioned whether one would be forthcoming at all.

The reason? Apple's launch of its own Safari browser at Macworld in San Francisco earlier this month. Safari, now out in a test or "beta" version, is based on the open-source browser project KHTML. KHTML is part of the K Desktop Environment, an open-source graphical interface for Unix workstations.

"I'm not a quitter, and our company isn't a quitter, but it really is up to Apple," said Jon von Tetzchner, chief executive of privately held Opera. "The Mac platform may not be viable for us any longer."

Specifically, Tetzchner said that he had asked Apple whether it would be willing to license Opera either to replace KHTML, or to supplement the current Safari version, which Apple said is a stripped-down affair with a minimalist interface and limited feature set.

"We have contacted Apple and asked them if they want a third-party browser, and we'll see what the answer is," Tetzchner said. "They could say we want to use Opera as the core engine. If they want KHTML as a simple little browser, and also something more advanced, we would be happy to provide it. Obviously, if we don't get any positive signs from Apple, then we have to think about it."

"We think Safari is one of the best and most innovative browsers in the world, and it seems our customers do too," the Mac maker said in a statement. "No one is making Mac users choose Safari over Opera--they're doing it of their own free will--and Opera's trashing of Safari sounds like sour grapes to us."

"The kiss of death"
Analysts gave Opera slim chances of success with this line of defense.

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Opera's mobile browser eases site-reading
Jon von Tetzchner, CEO, Opera Software
"Let's just say that Opera Software can't threaten Apple," said Ross Rubin, analyst with eMarketer in New York. "And competition from a free Apple product is the kiss of death--perhaps even worse than competing with a free Microsoft product."

Opera's consternation over Safari is the second shock wave Apple's launch has sent through the browser market. The advent of Safari also rattled Mozilla, exposing concerns over that browser's size, and catapulted KHTML from obscurity to potential widespread adoption.

Opera's Mac travails are nothing new to developers of third-party software--for the Mac or any other operating system. Developers routinely find themselves sidelined as operating system companies fold applications into the OS or launch separately marketed applications for it.

With the Mac, however, the problem has become more acute in recent months and years as Apple has worked aggressively to market its own line of Mac-specific multimedia and Internet applications.

"If Apple subsumes more features into its OS, smaller developers are going to pay the price and have to evaluate whether it's worth continuing to work on this market," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "It's incumbent on Apple to take its destiny into its own hands and it cannot rely on third-parties to deliver platform-differentiating solutions."

Last quarter the online music service MusicMatch decided to drop its service for the Mac, following Apple's release of the competing iTunes application.

At the time, MusicMatch reasoned that with Apple directly competing with it for an already small pool of users, maintaining development on a Mac version no longer made business sense.

Opera echoed that logic this week.

"It's not a platform where we've earned a lot of money," said Tetzchner. "It's a business decision. We have been putting a lot of resources into the Apple version and think we have a much better product, but it's still a question whether it's worth it."

Tetzchner said Opera engineers had been redoubling their efforts on the Mac version in an effort to catch up to Opera's version for Windows. He said the company would make a decision on the fate of Opera for the Mac "in the next couple of months."

Final act for Opera?
Opera has proved a resilient niche player in the browser market, despite the fact that most analysts years ago called that battle in Microsoft's favor.

The company has geared its business toward areas where Microsoft was thought to be weak--particularly the market for cell phone and Internet appliance browsers, whose makers are wary of reliance on Microsoft, an operating system competitor.

But analysts say that Opera faces an increasingly difficult sell as more and more device manufacturers opt for open-source alternatives--as Apple did with its selection of KHTML.

"The axis against Microsoft, certainly rooted in the carriers but with the Japanese CE companies starting to make overtures there, is looking more toward open-source solutions," Rubin said. "So Opera is between the rock of Microsoft and the hard space of open source."

In addition to their free licensing terms, open-source alternatives give companies like Apple the option of altering the code themselves to suit their own applications. And those advantages are proving open source to be a formidable competitor to small companies like Opera.

Tetzchner cited anecdotal evidence to suggest that Opera was continuing to do well on Linux-based devices, and pointed to the company's relationship with IBM, and others, to demonstrate its ability to cut deals in the era of open source.

He said the primary open-source alternative, the AOL Time Warner-supported Mozilla.org project, was simply too large to be used on small browsing devices.

"Code bloat" was indeed a key factor in Mozilla's failure to win the Apple account. But that loss didn't benefit Opera--it benefited KHTML.

Tetzchner brushed off the notion that KHTML would erode Opera's share of the market.

"KHTML is not a bad browser," said Tetzchner. "But we believe we have a stronger product."