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Who says the browser war is over?

Not Opera Software CEO Jon von Tetzchner, whose plucky company continues to tough it out against Microsoft and any other comers with a Web browser that commands a loyal following.

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
6 min read
Opera Software CEO Jon von Tetzchner can claim an achievement held by few of his fellow tech entrepreneurs: He's competed head-on against Microsoft and lived to tell the tale.

Even more, Opera Software's 34-year-old founder matter-of-factly tells a listener that when it comes to the Web browser market, Bill Gates' company is the latecomer.

Opera sells a Web browser that has earned kudos from reviewers and users for its speed and functionality. And unlike Microsoft, Opera has developed versions of its browser for Windows, Macintosh, Symbian and Linux. (It also markets an OS/2 version for the stalwarts out there.)

That cross-platform technology may yet pay dividends, but Opera Software won't be able to do much about challenging Microsoft's domination of the Internet browser market for desktops. Von Tetzchner's Norwegian company faces the same obstacle that Netscape encountered when it competed hard against Microsoft for every last desktop.

"The fact is that most companies are still afraid of Microsoft and afraid to go against them," according to von Tetzchner.

There's good reason for that, and venture capitalists in this country are understandably reluctant to invest in businesses where Microsoft is so entrenched. But von Tetzchner, who founded Opera Software in 1995 after leaving Norwegian R&D group Telenor Research, believes there's still ample opportunity as Web browsers find their way onto new devices.

CNET News.com recently spoke with von Tetzchner to talk about the future of Internet browsing and how he sees the Opera browser fitting into an evolving cyberlandscape.

Q: When you got started, why did you decide to build a company that developed Web browsers?

"When (Microsoft) entered the market, there was a question of whether we should stay or leave. But we felt, why shouldn't we?"
A: I was part of a team at Telnor Research in 1992, and part of what we were supposed to do was look out there and see what was interesting. We set up the first Web server in Norway and began to play with Web technology, but we found the browser lacking functionality. In 1994, when we were still inside Telenor, we came up with a prototype browser. We finally negotiated to get the rights to the software and founded the company in 1995.

Most entrepreneurs aren't rushing into a market where Microsoft dominates, but you decided it was worth a try. Why?
When we started, the market was quite different. In a way, it was Microsoft that decided they wanted to compete with us. When they entered the market, there was a question of whether we should stay or leave. But we felt, why shouldn't we? We believed we could make a browser and commercial product that was good enough to compete against anyone.

A lot of companies have come to us, thinking about new platforms, and people have been very happy with our software. We were a small company but we made the browser cross-platform; we started on Unix and moved over to Windows, where we thought we could make money.

Is the company profitable?
We had a couple of years in the red. That's part of our growing pains, but we believe that we're moving in the right direction.

And how many people work for Opera?
One hundred twenty-five.

OK, you've got 125. But because of its larger size, Microsoft can easily throw several hundreds of people on a project. How does a small developer--especially when it's competing against Microsoft--stay ahead?
We can never relax. In some ways, Microsoft getting into the market was bad news. But it means we have to have the best people, and we actually do believe we do have the best people. Competing against bigger companies is tough, but sometimes their size makes them slow.

One of the features people like about Opera is its speed when it's compared against Internet Explorer. Was speed a factor that you specifically had in mind when the software was designed?
We wanted to make effective software, and speed was a part of that. Size was another. It means a lot more work for our programmers because we don't use ready-made tools or modules. We do it all by ourselves from scratch. That benefits both customers and ourselves; because we don't rely on other people's code, if there's a fault, we can fix it ourselves.

How many people do you have working on the browser?
Currently, the team is some 50 to 60 people.

How often must you offer new versions to stay ahead--or just even--with your competition?

"What is so excellent about the browser is what it is today. It's so simple that you can learn to use it within five minutes."
We'd like to offer new versions as often as possible. We've been sending out releases once a year or every other year. I hope to have more frequent versions where we come up with less new things but are providing more services to users. We're now on version 6 and we started in 1995.

The Windows, Linux and Mac versions of Opera aren't identical. Do you plan to stick with that strategy?
Our aim is to give users what they want. I think (the versions) will be very much alike, but it will depend on the platform requirements. At the same time, we do want to make sure we provide the same kind of functionality on all the platforms.

I've heard complaints that the Windows version of Opera doesn't handle Java all that well. Is that something you're dealing with?
A lot people don't differentiate between Java and JavaScript. We have the most up-to-date version of Java that's available. If the scripts are written for a Microsoft variant, then obviously it won't work with Java.

What kinds of users are most receptive to using the Opera browser? Are they typically younger? Are they more likely to be European?
We have a fairly good mix, but it seems we have more users in Europe than in the U.S. That's somewhat related to the fact that in Europe most magazines come with CDs. In the U.S, getting distribution is more difficult. We can't get Opera into machines--Microsoft stopped that.

Is that still the case, even after Microsoft's antitrust trial? Are you in conversation with any PC makers in North America about getting distribution?
It had been a practical impossibility before. In theory, it may become easier because there's an agreement between Microsoft and the DOJ. I'll believe it when I see it. The fact is that most companies are still afraid of Microsoft and afraid to go against them.

From a technology point of view, how do you see the browser evolving over the next couple of years?
You're seeing less changes on the top, but obviously there are changes taking place underneath...It will have to have voice. But the most important thing is that the marketplace will change. Browsers will be available on other kinds of devices. People have been waiting for this for some time, and everyone agrees that it's just a question of time. Mobile phones, for example, now have WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) browsers. Over time, we will see a full browser on mobile phones with more advanced screens and hardware. You will also see more set-top boxes and TVs using the Web (browser). Cars, too.

How much longer do you think it will be before we're no longer stuck with the same navigation metaphors that are used in Internet browsers?
You'll see changes there, but I don't see it changing the world. You will see improvements, but what is so excellent about the browser is what it is today. It's so simple that you can learn to use it within five minutes. You don't need to be a technical person to browse the Internet.

How much longer do you plan to stick with it? What's your long-term definition for success?
That's a good question. I've been joking with friends that success is when we buy Microsoft. Getting down to it, our aim is to be quite big. On the desktop, it will be tough competing against Microsoft. We aim to increase our market share, but to really get to double digits will require a big change--whether that means being included with another operating system or (a change in) the competitive environment.

In other markets, we're aiming for double-digit share. Linux is interesting, but we're also doing browsers for Symbian. Our agreement made us the default browser on two of their three reference designs for PDA-based phones and communicators. We also have deals in the set-top space, which is important to us.