Web Masters Episode #16: Jon von Tetzchner

The Browser Wars were ruthless. One of the biggest victims was Opera, which, at one time, was the most popular browser in the world. Now it’s a distant sixth, and few people remember just how important it was. On this episode of Web Masters, Opera co-founder Jon von Tetzchner explains how Opera became so popular and how it eventually destroyed itself.



Opera logo and symbol, meaning, history, PNG

Jon von Tetzchner:

There was two of us and we had a starting capital, in current terms, maybe like $6,000. That’s kind of how we got going. With $6,000 and goodwill from the research lab, they were nice to us. I mean, we actually rented with them for three years, just our little offices, the two of us, and then we grew to probably eight in those offices during those three years. I mean, if you compare us to Netscape, before we had our first round of financing, Netscape had gone big, and disappeared.

When we were starting, the competitors, as we looked at them, there was Netscape, IBM was making something, Apple was making something, Oracle, Symantec, all these large companies, and they all gave up and we were the two of us, and then a few more, no capital, just sitting in a small office, probably something like 500 square feet in two offices with eight people. It was a small space, it was pretty tight.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, they may have started in a tiny office space, but it didn’t stop them from building something really big. It was the Opera web browser and there was a time in internet history when it was everywhere.

Jon von Tetzchner:

We could deliver on anything. Gradually, as we worked on the technology, we were able to take more or less any platform and our prototype up and running in a couple of weeks. We had brilliant coders that could get anything working. We were used to the limitations of being able to run on systems that were very limited. If the memory handling on the system was lacking, we would just replace it with our own. We would actually typically start with that. We were able to, even if the systems weren’t really built to run with the kind of software that we have, which a browser allocates a lot of memory and things like that needs something that’s really efficient and we were able to do that.

We delivered on devices, I mean, games consoles like Nintendo’s just on a lot of different devices. We were rather unique at the time because the hardware wasn’t really built for this and the other browsers would land mostly in two camps; they would land in the camp where you would have a full browser and plenty of hardware or you’d have a limited browser on limited hardware. We took a full browser that would run on anything. That was unique. No one else had that.

Aaron Dinin:

That ability to offer a complete web browsing experience on lower powered devices made Opera an especially valuable resource for mobile phones as they were just starting to include internet access, particularly in countries with less developed utility infrastructures.

Jon von Tetzchner:

Through this, we became extremely popular across the world. We’re number one in places like Africa. I think for a lot of people in Africa during this time, Opera was the internet because a lot of people didn’t have PCs but they had mobile phones, and they wanted to get access to the same content as the rest of us. They could do that on their mobile phones. We’re massively popular in India and a lot of other countries. Worldwide, we’re number one.

Aaron Dinin:

Yes, you heard that right. For a time, Opera, not Internet Explorer or Firefox or Safari or Chrome, Opera was the most popular web browser in the world. The person who helped get it there was Opera co-founder and CEO, Jon von Tetzchner. Are you ready to hear the story? Great. Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to Webmasters, the podcast that explores the history of internet entrepreneurship by sharing the stories of the web’s most influential early online innovators. I’m your host. My name is Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial tech entrepreneur. I teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University. I study the history of the world wide web. None of those things would be possible, if not for something that most of us, myself very much included, take for granted every single day and that’s our web browser.

However, our browsers are some of the most important pieces of software we use. They are quite literally our window into the web. We can’t have a podcast about the web without occasionally stopping to think about how we access it and of course, all the people behind those tools. That’s what we’re going to do in this episode right after I take a minute to thank our sponsor.

This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the support of our amazing sponsor Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions company that specializes in helping web entrepreneurs buy and sell cash flow positive work from anywhere internet businesses that includes things like content websites, SAS apps, domain portfolios, eCommerce stores, and just about any other type of business you can access through a web browser.

If you’re interested in buying an already operating, already profitable internet business, be sure to check out the Latona’s website where you can see listings of all the current businesses they got for sale. Ultimately, if you’ve already got an operating profitable internet business, reach out to the team at Latona’s and they can help you get it sold. Either way, find whatever you’re looking for by firing up your browser of choice: Opera, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Explorer, maybe even go old school with Mosaic. Check out latonas.com, that’s L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

In order to appreciate the Opera web browser and its role in internet history, I want to start by laying some groundwork about what makes a browser. Well, a browser, you’ve got two big parts, at least in terms of what we’re going to worry about here.

First is the user interface that includes things like the navigation bar, the forward and back buttons, bookmarks, those kinds of things. Below that is something called the rendering engine. The rendering engine is the part of the browser that interprets HTML code and then transforms it from a bunch of characters of text into the visual layouts we tend to associate with websites. It turns out, rendering engines are really complex things to build, so complex, in fact, that there have really only been a small handful of rendering engines ever produced and most of the different browsers you’ve heard of are actually just different user interfaces on top of the same few rendering engines.

Jon von Tetzchner:

I mean, a rendering engine is what you use to view webpages, right? This really hasn’t been that many of them. I just started with Mosaic and Netscape was built by the people that build Mosaic and was called Mosaic Communication to start with. Clearly, if anything, they at least learned a lot from their work.

Microsoft Internet Explorer in Italy was built off Mosaic. They licensed it from Spyglass, which was a company licensing out the code that was built by the NCSA. Then, there was a project by the KDE Foundation. They built their KHTML, which became WebKit, which became Safari, which became Chrome, and which is now used in most browsers out there. Basically, this is what views webpages. Again, I mean, even Microsoft System is now using Chrome. There’s really not a lot of choice out there at all.

Aaron Dinin:

Now, don’t worry if you didn’t quite catch everything of what Jon said. There’s not going to be a test on the history of web browsers at the end of this episode or anything like that. Really, I just wanted to paint the picture of the browser landscape in which Jon and the Opera team are working. It’s not like every company that has a web browser creates it from scratch. Instead, they take an existing rendering engine that’s free and open source, then they slap a unique user interface on it and kind of call it a day.

Now, that’s not what Opera did. Opera created everything from scratch. As impressive as that is, it’s even more impressive when you realize that the first version was really just Jon and his co-founder, a coder named Geir Iversoy, doing it all themselves. They were working at a big government-backed research lab housed inside the Norwegian Telecom giant now known as Telenor.

Jon von Tetzchner:

I was working at a research lab for the Norwegian telco. Actually, it was called Televerket at the time. We were kind of doing various things. Part of what we are doing is looking at interesting technologies and jumping on them. The thing that we had been working on before that was to build a word processor, a document format called ODA, which was actually a standard Open Document Architecture. We built a word processor with built-in mail client and everything but even though Open Document Architecture was standard, no one used it. That’s where we got shelved.

Then, we came across the web. This is 1992. By the end of 1993, there was maybe a couple of hundred web servers in the world. You probably understand, we were quite early and we started to play with this technology. We set up the first web server in Norway, which is one of the first in the world, became kind of the entry point to Norway. You would list all the other sites as they started to show up typically universities at the time. Then, we build other things. I mean, I actually spent a lot of time building software to convert documents into HTML.

I built a tool myself for taking FrameMaker documents, which are pretty complex pieces of documents with multiple chapters and links and images and tables and turn that into HTML document. It was a lot of fun. I’m jumping around a little bit but it was a lot of fun. I mean, my software is being used by like MIT and NASA and Ford and elsewhere.

We’re building stuff like that. We’re building an intranet before the concept of internet existed. We built a search engine. We built a tool that would take information from multiple sources and presented as a web page, as a fax, as an email. Again, we were at the research lab, right? Then, we had this idea, “Okay, what about making a browser?”

Aaron Dinin:

You kind of made it sound like building a browser is a totally normal thing to do but that’s actually kind of a big decision, right?

Jon von Tetzchner:

There was a fair amount of discussion on that. It actually took three months for us to take the decision. Our research team was a group of seven, was divided in the middle. This was in Norway and I guess the opinion was, “Hey, we can compete with the Americans.” The Americans at this time was Mosaic.

Aaron Dinin:

By the way, Mosaic, which we’ve already referenced a few times here on the episode, is widely considered the browser that popularized the web. It was famously developed in part by Marc Andreessen, who would later create Netscape and then Netscape browser and then eventually powerhouse VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz. Investors in, among other things, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Airbnb, Slack, Pinterest, Coinbase, GitHub Medium, Foursquare Stripe, and on and on and on. Yeah, when Jon was talking about competing with the Americans, he’s basically talking about Marc Andreessen, which is, some hefty competition.

Jon von Tetzchner:

We were kind of saying, “Okay, we can’t compete with Mosaic,” but we’re kind of seeing, “Hey, Mosaic isn’t really moving this fast.” You know what? We’ve already built a word processor. This is not that much harder, actually, probably easier than the word processor we built. We decided to build the browser and still inside Telenor or Televerket, as it was called at the time. We started working on the browser. In six months, we had the prototype, and then we had to decide what to do with it.

There was a bit of a discussion inside Telenor what to do with what we had built. They spent six months evaluating while we were allowed to continue working on the project. They didn’t want to do anything with it but they gave us a chance to found their own company and take the work that we had started with us because otherwise the project would just be canned. That’s how we started.

Aaron Dinin:

It sounds like you were basically just paid by Telenor to research interesting things until you came up with something cool and then they just let you go off and start a company around it, is that kind of the gist of Opera’s origins?

Jon von Tetzchner:

I mean, it’s interesting, because this used to be the telco in Norway, the one owned by the government, which meant the research lab basically had a certain amount of revenues went to research. We could do things that wasn’t really related to short term thinking at the same research lab GSM was done and other mobile telephony standards. The same applies to video conferencing.

Video conferencing system were way ahead of their time there and part of the video conferencing software we’re using today is using technologies at this research lab, right? This was a place like some of those well-known research labs across the world, where interesting things come out and that was what was coming out of there. We were another example of this where we were looking at web technology, finding it interesting and thinking about what we can do with it and as a result of that, building the browser.

Aaron Dinin:

I guess my question is if Telenor was going to shelve the project, why the heck did you and your co-founder think it was worth pursuing?

Jon von Tetzchner:

Well, thinking away, for us, we were doing something we thought was fun. Our thinking was, “Hey, we can build software that’s just as good or better as what these guys are doing.” In reality, we were unique, because most of the others that were building stuff, they were actually building it off the original Mosaic code in one way or another.

We built our code from scratch. There was no code from others that we were using. This was unique as an approach. I mean, there was two of us. My co-founder was brilliant. I mean, I don’t think I was a bad coder myself but he was a step above me when it comes to his ability to build stuff. I think we just built a really good piece of code. I mean, a brilliant piece of code. I’m really proud of what we were able to do.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay, so it was fun but I guess, why did it matter? I mean, why did the world need a different browser?

Jon von Tetzchner:

We had something that was unique enough that people would want to use our software. I think that was New York Times. It was saying that in the world of Chevy and Toyota kind of browses, we were the Ferrari. We had a lot more features. We had uniqueness in what we were building that was different from everyone else. There was a group of people that liked it.

Aaron Dinin:

What are some examples of features that made Opera different?

Jon von Tetzchner:

Well, I think in a way, one of the things that we had from the very early days was the ability to have multiple windows inside the windows, organization of your tabs. Gradually, we also introduced things like tabs. There’s a discussion whether there was someone else that did it before us but the concept of tabs was an only thing for us but specifically, even from the first early versions, we would have the concept of starting with multiple windows and remembering where you left off and things like that.

Scalability of content. I still remember I went to this conference talking about accessibility, and I was demonstrating how we were able to scale content on a webpage, which I think people take for granted now but at the time, no one was doing it. Remember the Microsoft guy wanting to ask me questions, “How did you manage to do this,” and I was starting to explain a little bit and I ended up telling him, “Well, you have to figure something out yourself.” He came back to me afterwards and say, “We’re going to copy this.” Obviously, years later, they actually did. It took some, actually quite a few years. Then, gradually now, I guess every browser is doing this but at the time, that wasn’t normal that you could actually zoom the content but it was unique for us.

We have things like keyboard shortcuts, being able to perform things with the keyboard, even be able to customize that into details, things like mouse gestures. There’s a long list of things. We ended up building in a mail client. Functionality wise, we just had a wealth of features you didn’t find in all the browsers.

Aaron Dinin:

It sounds like you’re saying over time, a lot of the other browsers basically just copied your features once they became popular? Is that kind of what was happening?

Jon von Tetzchner:

Obviously, it has to be said. Every now and then you’ll see that the other guys copy things that we make, right? That’s something that I’m used to that we build something and they’ll say, “Okay, we need this.” I mean, the basic principle, I think, of the browsers, they were all trying to compete on distribution. There were big companies. There’s plenty of funds. They were not necessarily trying to differentiate that much.

Well, in our case, we had a different approach, which is putting the user first, recognizing that people are different. They have different ways of interacting with the software and through that, adapting to the needs of the user.

I think the way it’s been working with software, I think, particularly in the last few years is there’s a process of simplification trying to adapt to the biggest group of users but I think it leaves a lot of users with inefficient piece of software. I think our thinking is that, okay, people actually have different needs and we can adapt to those needs instead of the other way around.

Aaron Dinin:

You just heard Jon explain the key differentiator between his design philosophy and the approach taken by his competitors. While other browsers were focused on simplifying and standardizing the web browsing experience, Jon and Opera emphasized supporting different usage patterns and allowing users to customize their browsing experience as much as they wanted.

In a way, it’s a lot like the debates around using Windows-based computers versus Macs or iPhones versus Android. To be clear, there’s not really a right or wrong answer here. Some people prefer to have a more streamlined experience and some people want more opportunities for customization. There’s room in the market for both types of approaches and that’s why companies like Apple and Microsoft can coexist. Jon, of course, recognizes this while clearly also having his preference for which option is better.

Jon von Tetzchner:

A lot of us have strong opinions about a lot of things, including which cars we drive, what kind of clothes we wear and the like. Now, the browser is the tool that you use the most by far. I mean, a lot of us are spending hours each day inside the browser. Actually, having a browser that adapts to your need to a great extent, not automatically but because this is how I want to do work. I want these keyboard shortcuts. I want to use the mouse this way. I want this kind of functionality and not this kind of functionality. This is the kind of flexibility that we offer. I think this is unique. There is no one else that is doing what we are doing.

My background is, I mean, obviously I’m a software developer and the like, but my master’s and my focus has been on the usability and accessibility. My father is a professor in psychology specializing in children with disabilities in communication and things like that. I’ve had this in the back of my mind all the time. I just think what we do for whether we call the long tail or those that have special needs or the like, I think is useful for everyone. It’s just a question of adapting to the needs of all those users and not saying it’s my way or the highway, which I feel is kind of what our competitors tend to do.

Aaron Dinin:

Out of curiosity, how did that philosophy translate into the kind of product you ultimately produced with Opera?

Jon von Tetzchner:

I mean, some of the design thinking is that if you leave the choice to the user, then you’re lazy or something but I think it’s the opposite. I mean, one of the things that I love doing when we were at Opera is asking people, how do you like to go back and forth in history? In this case, browser history and we provided a lot of different ways to do that.

Typically, you didn’t really need that many users to get all the different methods in use, whether it was single key keyboard shortcuts, multikey keyboard shortcuts, pressing the buttons, right mouse buttons, mouse gestures, or some other way. We’re finding that people are finding different ways of doing things. We provided multiple ways and they were all being used. That means not one of them is the right one or the wrong one. It’s just the one that you prefer.

Aaron Dinin:

That kind of reminds me how any time I watch someone else use their computer or phone, I’m always a little shocked by how differently they use it than me.

Jon von Tetzchner:

This is what I studied when I was doing research on this. Typically, what you do so you watch people, right? You watch a few people and you see how they do things. You may learn something from it. Typically, what you do you look at people that are not very familiar with your software but the reality is, once you learn to use the software, you’ll learn a few tricks. Not having those tricks as an option kind of takes a lot away from things.

Then, the other one is to basically collect usage information that’s really popular to do. In some way it sounds about right to do but then there’s also the fundamental question of, “Okay, if you’re watching what people are doing and then you’re using this largest common denominator kind of principle, you end up taking the solution that 80% of the people take all the time.

Now, if you combine that multiple times, you actually end up doing something that’s maybe a lot smaller group actually enjoys using. I think you end with very limited flexibility because it isn’t necessarily the same people that are wanting to use the 1% of the features all the time. I mean, you’re actually finding there’s different people that like this feature or that feature. You’re taking away from all of them. We have this strange principle of just listening to what the user say. If our users say, “We don’t like how you did this way, we’d like you to do it that way,” well, then we provide an option. We have a principle. When in doubt, make it an option. That happens more often than not.

Aaron Dinin:

While most of what Jon and I are discussing here relates to personal preferences, Jon also took a moment to remind me that it’s not always a question of whether or not we like something. The web is a resource for everyone. That means web browsers have to be able to support everyone’s different needs and we can’t just assume all users have the same physical capabilities.

Jon von Tetzchner:

When we did things for people with accessibility issues, I still remember a friend of mine, he was giving us a lot of good feedback because he was using a rod on his head to control the browser. Using a mouse was really difficult. Single key keyboard shortcuts was an easier way to do things. The fact that we did things to help him and others be able to utilize the internet in a better way, I mean, I think that’s something that I was very proud of.

Aaron Dinin:

As Jon points out, not everyone can use the mouse. A feature like single key keyboard shortcuts matters immensely. On a larger scale, a big part of what Opera-enabled was accessibility for people with limited technology resources. That’s because even though they might seem kind of simple, web browsers tend to be huge resource hogs.

Heck, a quick glance at my system diagnostics right now shows me that on my laptop, Google Chrome is by far the biggest user of my computer’s processor, memory, battery and data. The use of stats on my iPhone shows me my Safari browser is doing a similar thing over there. That, by the way, was a big part of why having its own custom code base was so important for Opera’s growth that allowed them to expand their browser’s footprint in ways competitors simply couldn’t, which in turn led to Opera’s popularity.

Jon von Tetzchner:

The first version of the browser was for Windows. Then, we had to do efforts to get it to run on different other operating systems. For a number of reasons, one of the operating systems that we started working with actually through a partner that we worked with was something called SIAM.

SIAM was the handheld mostly in US and Europe, basically, a kind of small computer in some ways, a PDA. There was interest in us providing Opera on that. The point being our code, because we wrote it ourselves, was able to run almost everything. We had made so much effort. I think everyone else, “There’s going to be plenty of memory. Don’t worry about it,” and you could see that happening to like Netscape and Mosaic and the like. They didn’t really care.

While we looked at, okay, there’s a limitation here of 64k data chunks and things like that, that you had with Windows three. We looked at that as an opportunity, in some ways, how can we utilize the memory most efficiently and we just did a lot of really low level stuff to make this work. When suddenly there was talk of delivering on PDAs and gradually, all those kinds of devices, we had something that ran since I was doing those PDAs.

Then, I guess they decided to work with some other players and start a consortium called Symbian. Symbian was [inaudible 00:25:44] Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, the three of the largest mobile companies in the world collaborating on an operating system. Well, they didn’t have a good browser, but we did. Through that collaboration, we had this thing that ran on those SIAM PDAs, we were then able to start delivering on smartphones, early smartphone from Symbian. We would gradually be on a lot of these phones; Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola phones and others.

Aaron Dinin:

I actually remember being one of the people with an early smartphone like the ones you’re talking about. The first browsers were all garbage. Then, I remember finding Opera and finally being able to actually use the web on a phone. I was so excited.

Jon von Tetzchner:

By the way, at that time, I had to always be telling people, “Yes, people want to browse on a mobile phone and yes, they actually wanted real internet and not [inaudible 00:26:42] because at that time, there was this idea that you’d have a separate internet for the mobile phone, that would be very limited. We were fighting this notion and we decided to build a full blown browser that you could get into your phone and then into other kinds of devices. I mean, we are delivering so many strange kinds of devices. We are delivering on [inaudible 00:27:04] of boxes and televisions and airplane entertainment systems and faxes. There were so many weird things.

Aaron Dinin:

How did all that translate into user growth?

Jon von Tetzchner:

I mean, I would say generally, from the time we were launching in the early 2000s and onwards, I guess we reached the user base after I quit the company. I think we maxed out at about 350 million users, active users, most of those in mobile, and this is active users and not installs. Others we’re counting installs. We couldn’t match the number of installs but when it comes to statistics, and you look at third party statistics and look at, “Okay, what mobile browsers are in use?” We would do off everything else. It wasn’t, I guess, until after some time of iPhones and Android devices that things changed a bit. Then, there were others that came into the market.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s a lot of users. It must have been really expensive to support. What was the business model behind Opera?

Jon von Tetzchner:

I mean, it’s interesting because our business models change during different periods of the company. Initially, it was basically licensing, Shareware. People were downloading them, give us $35. Once we had these device deals, we started to get paid by the device manufacturers for distributing the browser with him. That worked really well as well.

Then, we changed the model to a third model. We then started doing deals with the operators because Opera Mini, the solution that whether you’d have a client service solution, we were then hosting a service. They would pay for hosting. We would get monthly payments per user.

Then, we were kind of gradually working where we would do both on the PC side and on the mobile side, we will start to have working models where we would have a free browser, but we would have revenue from like search and stuff like that.

That’s the model that you look at, for example, Firefox is using today on PC side is a model that you do deals with the search providers and use against it for free, but you managed to get a little bit of revenue per user per year and enough that it actually pays the bills. If you look at the Firefox numbers, they’re pretty high. I guess it pays a bit more than the bills for if you get that kind of user base.

Aaron Dinin:

For reference, Google’s latest deal with Firefox browser to be their default search provider is estimated to be worth somewhere around $400 million annually. We’re not talking small amounts of money here. In fact, as its user base grew, other people started recognizing the potential in Opera’s monetization opportunities, including of course, investors.

Jon von Tetzchner:

There was investors knocking on our door because they said, “Okay, these guys are actually doing something interesting in a new space. This mobile phone is taking off and there is an opportunity there to be unique.” They saw that we had something unique. Suddenly, we got a little bit of money into the company. I mean, it was five years after we founded it, but okay, that gave us the funding to go and invest more and hire more people into the company and build a more professional organization.

We actually went into the red for a little while. I mean, we had actually managed to stay afloat more or less in the black from the beginning but obviously, as we jumped from like 20, 30 people to 100 in a year, that was a different kind of situation. We got the investors in. We were, at the same time, we were doing those deals with Ericsson and Nokia and the like. Obviously, they saw a lot of promise in that. Through that, getting into the mobile space, which again, we took the lead in the mobile space, we were recognized as having the best technical solution out there by far. That’s how we continue to grow.

Aaron Dinin:

Eventually, Opera went public, right? How soon did that happen after taking VC money?

Jon von Tetzchner:

We went through a period there of, I guess, three years or so that we were in the red. As we got the investment money and we invested in building a company, we wanted to be profitable before going public. That was a point for us. We were profitable in 2003. We went public in 2004. We never looked back.

We had a revenue growth, I guess, typical revenue growth for us every year was like 40, 50%. We were changing our business models to adapt to the ongoing market conditions. Yeah, that’s kind of how we were building it. We were continuing to grow the company. We gradually grew the company during this time. After going public, we grew to a team of 750 employees. We had offices in like 10 countries, 12 countries. We were working with all these huge companies across the world. We were having a lot of fun.

Aaron Dinin:

How did it feel going from a company where you called all the shots to having investors?

Jon von Tetzchner:

When we got funds in the first time in like 2000 and then in a couple of other rounds, we got some VCs in. That was all good. The VCs were professional. I like working with them. It had taken us a really long time to find the right investors. These were good guys. Then, when we went public, one of the VCs sold their funds. The other one, they had owners that wanted to stick around. They took over the shares and suddenly we had unexpected investors.

These investors, they didn’t believe that we could do things. They’re just saying, “Okay, you’ve been lucky, let’s try to find an exit.” It kind of created that very difficult situation where they were actually hoping that we would be purchased. They actually tried to start the sale of the company by themselves, by selling their shares, creating quite a lot of unrest.

Aaron Dinin:

That sounds ominous. What kind of unrest were they creating?

Jon von Tetzchner:

I remember this meeting with Sergey Brin because of rumors that had started in the market of Microsoft wanting to buy us. He was very concerned about that. We’re trying to come down partners like Google and others. Shortly afterwards, Google started to make their own browser.

Aaron Dinin:

Wait a second, I want to get this straight. You’re saying those investors started creating rumors of Microsoft buying Opera and since Google was one of your big partners that spooked them and now we’ve got Google Chrome as a result of all that? If that’s true, that would be kind of incredible.

Jon von Tetzchner:

I don’t know if those things are tied, but I can’t discount it, right?

Aaron Dinin:

No, I guess not. Wow. Okay. What happened with those investors?

Jon von Tetzchner:

These fights went on for like six, seven years. I guess at some stage, I became tired. It ended up with me leaving the company. Then, after I left the company, the company went in a totally different direction, ethically. A couple of years after I left the company and seeing the products change dramatically, then it was okay. I guess we have to do something.

Part of that was because we made not only a product, but we made a movement. We had very supportive end users. People were volunteering to help us both spread the word test and the like. I felt that we owed them that we couldn’t just leave them. They were not liking what was happening to the company. Obviously, we have spent so much time building a company, a culture both internally and externally and seeing that being destroyed was not a lot of fun.

I mean, they basically threw away our core and started to use Chromium, 17 years of work of pristine code. From that perspective, there was a need for something else. My thinking was, “Okay, we’ll build another browser. I guess we could build it on Chromium.” If they had been competing with my own code, I couldn’t do that but given that the code we build was thrown away, then, okay, I guess we can then build on Chromium and just focus on the user interface and that will be our thing.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s exactly what Jon did. In April of 2016, he launched the Vivaldi browser. It was specifically targeted to Opera’s dedicated user community that felt increasingly alienated by the company’s changed direction but more broadly, the goal of Vivaldi is to provide that highly customizable browser experience that Jon felt was missing from the market, as Opera increasingly began looking like all its competitors.

Jon von Tetzchner:

Yeah, I mean, the point of Vivaldi was basically, obviously, I was thinking that I would be using our Opera all the time because that’s what we built but given that Opera went in totally different direction, I felt there’s no one doing what Vivaldi is doing. That is focusing on the needs of the end user, providing an extremely flexible user interface, providing a lot of features that you will find nowhere else.

Aaron Dinin:

Features like what? What are we missing in current browsers that the Vivaldi has?

Jon von Tetzchner:

We introduced page capture a few years ago. It allows you to take easy capture on the page that you’re viewing, potentially the whole page, including parts that are not visible. Gradually, a lot of them would do the same. We introduce tab stacking. The concept that you have a lot of tabs, because of that, it gets crowded and it’s difficult to find your way around tabs and finding tabs that you visited before.

We made a hierarchy of them. We call it Tab Stacks, right? We are seeing some of the others are looking into things like that. Similarly, being able to then view pages side by side, organizing your content. We can have Tabs Stacks, multiple Tab Stacks organizing your screen and particularly if you have a big screen, then you can organize it really easily and kind of going between workspaces.

There’s a lot of power here that you don’t find anywhere else. I mean, we put all the things in like notes. You have a notes manager where you can select a piece of text on a page and add it as a note will to add the text where you found it and a screenshot. We then added things like cost function, which is a recent one. Basically, the telephone is calling press the pause button. It will pause all video, all audio, blank out the screen until you’re ready to go back. It’s little details. People love it. Pretty soon now, we are then taking it into 1000 step further by finally getting our mail client and calendar and use reader into the browser.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay, I promise this episode isn’t just some thinly veiled advertisement for the Vivaldi browser. I’ve honestly not heard of it before my conversation with Jon. Though after a bit of research, I discovered that they do have just north of 1.5 million active users, which ain’t nothing.

At the same time, it’s a tiny drop in the bucket compared with total number of browser users but to paraphrase Jon earlier, New York Times quote about Opera being like a Ferrari, if we assume Vivaldi has taken over Opera’s position in the world of web browsers, well, not everyone drives a Ferrari. More importantly, my reason for including Vivaldi here is because when discussing it, Jon brought up an important point about all the web browsers we use, which seems worth considering.

Jon von Tetzchner:

Gradually, what we’ve been seeing is that the big guys are providing services, which are pretty good but they’re online and these companies live off your data. Maybe you would like to do things in a different way and that’s kind of the way we are thinking.

Aaron Dinin:

What’s an example of something in Vivaldi that’s different or more private?

Jon von Tetzchner:

There’s a FeedReader. The other browsers what they’ve been doing, they’ve been building in new services, which learn from your browsing and your reading and they give you more news based on what you’re reading. We think that’s fundamentally wrong.

Instead, we’re providing a FeedReader, which basically you subscribe to certain services and you get all the news and not just news based on what you happen to be looking at. It’s a different approach. I think we are trying to look at the issues that are on the internet. I mean, we built in a tracker blocker and an ad blocker that is built into the browser as it gives you the control of how much data you want to share with sites.

There’s a lot of elements like this, a lot of flexibility, a lot of uniqueness that you just don’t find anywhere else because my feeling is that the other browsers, in many ways, are more driven by business model. Well, our thinking is our business model is to provide a great piece of software that people like to use and will make a little bit of money from any search deals or the like that we make but we are not selling user data. We are not collecting user data anywhere. I mean, not in the cloud and we are not building user profiles locally on your computer either.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay, you’re obviously not a fan of how much data tech companies collect about us. Why is that?

Jon von Tetzchner:

There’s no reason why companies should be collecting data on users just because it’s easy. I mean, you don’t expect your carpenter or your painter coming into your house to be collecting your discussions with your wife just because they are there. You don’t expect them to collect information about what furniture and all the things you have in your house, just like you don’t expect your mailman to browse your mail, not your physical, not your emails.

There’s just something strange with what these companies are doing. Again, I guess we’re thinking big. We’re a small company but we are thinking about how can we leave a positive mark in the world. I really just think that the level of collection of information that’s happening today should just be bad. It’s not really rocket science. It needs to be stopped.

Aaron Dinin:

As you just heard, Jon thinks the amount of data collection needs to be stopped. Maybe he has a point. After all, if our browser is our window into everything we see and do on the web, that means that people who build our browsers could have access too, well, everything we see and do on the web. Should we be concerned about that? It seems like an important question.

One definitely worth thinking more carefully about, which is exactly what I hope we’ll tackle in a future episode of Webmasters. You definitely don’t want to miss that, right? Be sure to subscribe to Webmasters now on your podcasting app of choice and share it with your friends to so they can all be part of the discussion.

I’d like to thank Jon von Tetzchner for sharing the story of Opera. You can keep up with him and all his newest work on Vivaldi by following him on Twitter. He’s @jonsvt. You can also follow us on Twitter. We’re @webmasterspod. I’m on Twitter to @aarondinin, that’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. I also write lots of articles about startups, entrepreneurship and building businesses over on medium.com. Just search my name there and you’ll have no problem finding everything I’ve published.

A quick thank you to Ryan Higgs, our audio engineer for all his hard work and a thanks to our sponsor Latona’s. Remember, if you’re in the market to buy or sell an internet business, be sure to check out latonas.com. Finally, thanks to all of you for listening. We’ll be back again soon with another episode but for now, well, it’s time for me to sign off.

[OUTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

I always like to ask, where did the name Opera come from?

Jon von Tetzchner:

Well, actually, we were discussing this in months trying to find a name. I had a lot of really bad ideas myself but part of what we’re trying to do was to have a short international name. We kind of just liked it. We are thinking people could spell it but we are actually finding a lot of people would spell it as Oprah and send us… Well, actually, you don’t know how many mails we would get into Oprah telling their life stories in their life that we then had to reply to.

Aaron Dinin:

No way. Too funny. People thought they were writing Oprah Winfrey, seriously? I have no idea what that has to do with the rest of the episode. I definitely got to find a way to include it. It’s too good of a story to leave out. Thanks for sharing it.