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Opera tunes up to overtake Firefox

Mini-me to the rescue

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Interview Opera is looking to mobilise its existing community of users in order to overtake Firefox as the number two browser on the desktop. Last week, Opera decided to give away an ad-free version of its browser for the first time. Jon von Tetzchner, chief exec of Opera Software, said that by removing the inclusion of banner ads from the free version of its browser the company had removed the biggest reason users might have for avoiding its software.

The Norwegian software developer claims 2.4m downloads of the ad-free version of the browser since 20 September, when Opera made the big move. von Tetzchner disputes figures from web analytics firms which put Opera's browser market share down at around 2-3 per cent or lower while Firefox has a market share of around 8.8 per cent. These figures can be misleading because users can change Opera to present itself as Internet Explorer to gain access to sites that fail to follow web standards.

Opera's market share stands at around five per cent in many countries such as Norway, Germany, Russia and Japan, according to von Tetzchner, who said the goal of the firm is to reach double digits in as many places of the world as possible. "We have to be patient and we won't reach 10 per cent before the end of the year, but we might do it before the end of next year," he said. Opera already has between 10-15m active users, he added.

Community politics

Beyond removing ads from its free browser, Opera has a two-part strategy for encouraging surfers to switch their preferred browser software. Firstly, it wants existing users to recommend the software as a faster more secure alternative to friends, something it is trying to encourage through a revamped version of its community sites (MyOpera.com). It also hopes the mobile side of its business will help its push Opera on the desktop.

"Firefox showed what it's possible to achieve with a co-ordinated community backed by well thought out public relations. We hope to do the same," von Tetzchner said. "Mozilla and Opera are becoming similar. They're developing a business model and organisation just at the same time we've gone free with our browser. The real difference is that Mozilla is open source but to most people that doesn't matter. The use of open standards is more important."

Firefox allows users to use a wide range of "plug-in" programs, freely available for download on the net, to expand its functions and therefore its appeal. Opera's boss is cautious of this suggesting that plug-ins could represent a security risk. A lack of developer appetite to write plug-ins for Opera could also be part of the reason, of course.

Longer term, Opera aims to persuade PC manufacturers to pre-install its software, but von Tetzchner admits there is considerable resistance to this from hardware vendors. "Microsoft can't prevent PC vendors doing this via contract, but the problem is not solved. Suppliers are afraid that if they include other browsers it will be seen as a hostile action by Microsoft."

More immediately, Opera hopes the increased use of the mobile versions of its browser software will have a beneficial effect on desktop use. "Opera's move into mobile will build awareness of the brand," von Tetzchner said. "Pocket IE is not compatible with IE so developers will have to reprogram their sites for the mobile internet, and that can only help Opera."

Mini Me

The firm is beta testing Opera Mini which allows mobile users to download a lightweight Java applet to access compressed versions of web pages parsed through a server maintained by Opera. The idea of the software, only officially available in Norway, is to give users of any phone that supports Java an Opera mobile experience without downloading a full version of the browser. Opera has recorded 100,000 downloads of the software. Hackers in Russia have created a Russian version of the applet which von Tetzchner said showed the idea was popular even though the firm was holding off an official launch to make sure all goes well.

Opera reckons that mobile services with walled communities and WAP browsers will be superseded by an open mobile internet. "We are offering an advanced browser that is optimized to work on low power devices," said von Tetzchner. He added that the lack of success of Microsoft's smart phone business gave Opera a greater chance of stealing the march on Microsoft in the mobile browser area.

The Google effect

Prior to September, desktop versions of Opera's browser were previously available free of charge with an ad banner. Users had the option of paying a licensing fee to remove the ad banner and receive premium support. One to three per cent of users purchased this license and that along with revenue from search engines and the sale of ads made up the revenue streams for Opera's PC business.

Search revenues made up 45 per cent of Opera's desktop income in the first half of 2005. "We're renegotiating our search revenue deals with our providers so we don't need to get many more users to get the same income as before," von Tetzchner explained. Opera's principal search partner was Google but it also has relationships with Yahoo! and eBay that have enabled it to secure improved search deals all round. ®

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