Opera co-founder on the future of mobile, computing

Jon von Tetzchner, the co-founder of Opera, first discovered the internet in 1992 while working at the Norwegian telecoms company, Telenor. Realising the potential of this new technology, von Tetzchner and his partner branched out and set up Norway’s first Internet Service Provider, which was one of the first one hundred ISPs in the world.

Two years later, they began to work on browsers and launched the company as Opera Software ASA.Today, “Opera develops the Opera web browser, a high-quality, multi-platform product for a wide range of platforms, operating systems and embedded internet products – including Mac, PC and Linux computers, mobile phones and PDAs, game consoles, and other devices like the Nintendo Wii, DS, Sony Mylo, and more.”

Memeburn called the Opera CEO in Norway to find out his views on the future of the browser and the web.

Memeburn: We’ve seen good reports, but what are your initial feelings about Microsoft Internet Explorer 9?
Jon von Tetzchner: I’ve only briefly looked at it. As always, we welcome the fact that Microsoft improves web support. We consider that very important and, to be honest, IE has been holding back the web. So it’s a positive that they have improved their browser. But we don’t judge. They do their thing, we do ours.

MB: Have you received due credit for Opera’s tabbing innovation, which is now a standard feature on just about every other browser?
JvT: Most important thing for us is that we do a lot of innovation. We’ve always thought its better that we innovate rather than copy, and we continue to do so. There is lots of innovation in the pipeline.

MB: Opera’s mobile browser, Opera mini, seems to be the focus and growth area for the company. Have you ditched the desktop web where you seem to have lost market share?
JvT: No. Not at all. We consider all our platforms as being equally important. Desktop is still very important. In fact, recently we have increased the numbers of staff working on our desktop products.
They work really well together. We’re a cross-platform company. We have 50-million users on desktop product and it’s growing at a nice pace.
What does tend to happen is that a fair amount of our users start on Opera Mobile and then move to desktop. So they feed each other.

MB: Quite a bit of your growth has been as result of bundling the Opera browser with Nokia. Does that make Opera quite vulnerable to Nokia’s fortunes? How do you see them right now?
JvT: Very interesting to see what happens now. Very significant changes are taking place. Resignations in key posts are huge at a time like this. But it’s a very big company and they’re still a great company. So it’s going to be very interesting to see where they go. Nokia are still the biggest mobile company in volumes, even on the high-end of the market. I might be wrong but I think that even with smart phones, Nokia ship more than anyone else.
Do they affect our fortunes? Not really. We work with most of the original equipment manufacturers in one way or another, but we have significant distribution ourselves.
There are more than 500 000 downloads of Opera software from our site alone every day.
So the reality is that, through what we do and our reputation, we get our distribution. The biggest chunk of how we are found is through our own channels. And what all of this means is that that our focus continues to be on the best user experience that we can provide.

MB: Is the browser the future of the operating system?
JvT: What has already happened is that most time that users spend in front of a PC is spent running a browser. Most apps are in the browser and people just consider them to be web pages. But they rely on browser. Most new apps are being developed using web standards, so that even when apps run in separate windows, the browser is central to most of what you do.
Obviously you still need an OS underneath. You can choose everything else to run in the browser. There are many choices that you can make around that question.

MB: What’s the future of the mobile phone?
JvT: Finally, the phone is being used to do what it is capable of, rather than just making calls and buying ringtones.
The way we see it, and the numbers back this up, is that people want to do the same on their phones as they do on their PCs. The same services, the same functionality. As time moves on, it should get easier and easier. Now you can browse really well, but buying things is still easier on PC. I think that will change. We’ve seen it all happen on the desktop side and there’s no reason not to expect the same on mobile.

MB: Do you think location-based services are going to take off like people predict?
JvT: I think location is still missing a few things before it really gets going. People are thinking of it almost as spam. For example, you’re walking down the street and you’ll get a message to say, come get a coffee at Starbucks. Which is fine, but what happens if you get a message from every store as you go down the street? That turns into a nightmare.
So providers should be thinking “How can I serve the customer first, and then maybe make money after that?” Then location can start to make sense. For example, when I’m travelling and I want to get pizza, I will order through my phone, they will get my location automatically, and deliver to where I am. I don’t particularly know where I am but the pizza company will know and they can find me. That’s a different way of thinking and I think that’s the future of location-based services.

MB: What is your sense of the African mobile market at the moment?
JvT: Mobile is booming in Africa. It’s really interesting for us in that it’s really early days on the net for Africa. Penetration of the continent is still only at 6%, which is really tiny. But from that perspective, the value of the internet on mobile is so much greater for Africa because it’s becoming the African starting point. The potential implications of positive change for Africa are profound. It’s going to be making history in some ways. The internet is not in Africa in volumes, but it can happen through mobile phones very quickly.

MB: Do you think the mobile web could be ‘a turning point’ for Africa?
JvT: I do. When you think about mobile payments, Africa is leading the way.They are jumping over years of tech development, jumping straight into mobile and taking the lead.

MB: Is the world getting serious about investing in African technology growth?
JvT: I would expect the money to follow the growth of mobile. But the most important thing with all this development is that it’s easier to build things up by yourself. There is a great opportunity for Africans to build services locally and sell them locally.

MB: What can people expect to take away from your appearance at Mobile Conference in Africa?
JvT: What I’m going to be emphasising is the importance of the net and the change that it brings. It’s vital for Africa. The internet has the potential to change many, many things. Equal access to info is such a change for people. We take it for granted now, but it was only 20 years ago that the web came to a country like Norway. It’s open, it’s standardised, no-one owns it and we need to keep it that way. You don’t want the gatekeepers on the internet.

MB: What is the future for Opera? What innovations are you working on?
JvT: In the short to mid term, we’ll continue to work on all our browsers, and some TV deals. We’re trying to make it all work together. That’s where services like Link, Turbo, Unite and other widgets come in to it. The only shift I see is that we continue to grow with the web. We’ve added technology, server-side components, synchronising, all of that is around things that help the browser become better and more integrated. As a company, we think it’s cool to work on hot devices, but we also want every device to host our products.



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