Opera, which came out of Norway's Telenor in 1994, is a genuine maverick. The company charged for the browser – "We had no way to make money" says founding CEO Jon Tetzchner – when its competitors were free.
Its two founders survived for five years on £5,000 start-up funding – "The minimum you need to do a limited liability company" – while Netscape went public with a giant splash and Microsoft funded Internet Explorer out of pocket change.
And because Tetzchner's father is a psychology professor specialising in children with disabilities, it focused from the beginning on accessibility.
"In 1994," says Tetzchner, who joined Telenor straight from a masters in computer science, "we had a big discussion in our group over whether to make a browser, and half of the team believed it was impossible to compete with Mosaic, and the other half believed we could. The turning point was that Mosaic was fairly shaky on Windows."
Old-timers remember: the first version couldn't print or copy. It took the group six months to create a prototype.
"And then we had a discussion with Telenor that ended up with the two of us taking the code and founding Opera Software in 1995."
Tetzchner is happy Telenor let it go: he thinks the company would have killed it because of the number of competitors.
That makes Opera the oldest continuously developed browser out there. It also, eventually, made Opera Software a successful company, despite its impoverished early years and having to compete with free.
"People still paid," he says. "In 1998, desktop revenues went up six times. We were the only ones trying to sell a browser and six times."
Since then, the company has added 500 staff and its user numbers grow 40 to 50 percent every year.
Tetzchner puts the number of desktop Opera users at 25 to 30 million and doesn't worry about others' success.
"As long as we grow ourselves, it's OK."
In fact, he says, every time a hot, new browser is launched – Firefox, Chrome – the company sees new interest.
"A lot of articles mention that they borrowed a few ideas from us – we do have a lot of features in the browser (and the mail client) that don't exist in others."
Besides, if you're trying one new browser, why not two?
As early as 1997 people began contacting the company with ideas – why didn't it make an operating system, or office software, or run on other platforms?
"There was a guy with the company at the time, and he asked if people would be willing to fund it." Enough people did to start its cross-platform efforts.
In 2001, the company finally hit on a new business model, putting an advertisement in the top right corner and in a "very big move for us" began giving the browser away.
Tetzchner says the company never made any money from the ad, but that the giveaway meant a lot more people downloaded it who then decided to pay.
"In 2005, we removed the ad. We should have done it sooner, but we didn’t' have any other business model then. Eventually, we landed on providing search and services as a convenience in the right corner. We make money from those services – Google, etcetera pay for the traffic." He adds, "This was quickly copied by Mozilla and others."
The most notable thing to an Opera newcomer is that the software has resisted the bloat that tends to infect older software: it's quick and lightweight, a key to succeeding on mobile platforms where users may be paying by the minute.
The company expects to continue developing the browser, which has had a new version almost every year.
"We always try to think of ways to make it better – adding features, how to make the desktop, mobile, and TV experience work better together. The most important thing is to get browsers onto these devices. People don't realise that the browser has become the platform of choice."
It's important, he adds, to "keep competition in the field."
Opera maverick is still making waves
By Wendy Grossman on Oct 9, 2008 7:39AM