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Facebook needs Opera - to rescue it from dependence on Apple

Fat lady barely starting a preliminary gargle, though

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Analysis Facebook is reported to be interested in buying Scandinavian browser company Opera Software.

The facts are few, the sourcing criminally light, but the story arrives as Opera is also reported to have instituted a hiring freeze that some claim is a harbinger to putting itself up for sale.

Both firms refused to comment on the reports when contacted by The Reg.

Why would Facebook want to own its own browser, especially when Opera has minuscule market share and is better at generating publicity than desktop growth?

Facebook is also interested in buying Face.com and, again, preparing its own phone having poached six iPhone engineers and one from the iPad team at Apple.

A market once thought dead has been on fire in recent years, thanks initially to Mozilla’s Firefox: that led to Google’s Chrome and Microsoft’s conversion to standards with IE9 and IE10. Things are so promising, even Yahoo! is making a play for a stake in browsers, with its Axis.

Why have a browser? As far as Microsoft was concerned, it was felt if you lost the browser you lost the desktop and MSN business. Microsoft likes to create what it calls “optimized experiences” and on IE today that means things like pinning web pages to the bottom of the Windows 7 screen to help you find them fast.

Such thinking comes from the type of company with a market to protect; today’s browser makers don’t have this but are trying to make themselves more relevant. The perceived way of doing that is performance for the end user.

Google launched Chrome despite partnering with Mozilla on Firefox because Firefox was slowing down, turning into big ol' memory hog – although that’s been rectified now. Google added incognito browsing, search with sites from the toolbar and tabbed synching.

Opera has also sped up browsing, with Turbo that compresses web pages by up to 80 per cent to serve pages to most devices – and a claimed 90 per cent for Apple’s iPhone and iPad - across narrow or spotty networks. Microsoft responded by making IE fast and look more like Chrome.

After awhile all this speed and performance is unnoticed by the typical web user on the desktop. But this is not the target demographic; the new targets are those using specific apps, like gaming, and those on phones and tablets, which have limited onboard compute and are at the mercy of spotty networks.

That’s why Firefox and Chrome have been focusing on hardware accelerated graphics rendering; to offload traffic from the CPU and prolong battery life.

Hence, we also now have Firefox and Chrome for Android.

One company that doesn’t let you run your browser on the device unless it’s native is the company that’s got the best and most exciting market share: Apple’s insistence on native software has kept Firefox and Chrome off its phones.

The Opera Mini web browser is the exception; it’s permitted because Opera Mini caches web pages using Opera’s global network of servers to render and execute pages rather than this happening on the device. In that respect, Opera Mini is more of a service app so passes Apple’s rules without Opera needing to build one version for Apple’s phones and tablets, and another for everybody else.

Opera Mini isn’t restricted to iOS, though, and Opera claims 168 million users running on Java ME, Android, Windows Mobile, iOS, BlackBerry and Symbian, too. Importantly, they are largely in emerging markets: Opera has struggled in the US and Europe but is strong in growing markets such as Russia, Brazil, Africa and South East Asia.

Opera has another plus: an ad-serving network, bought early last year for $8m plus. Mobile ads aren’t owned by any single company at present, unlike the desktop. Ads are vital part of the newly IPO’d Facebook, as chief operating officer Sheryl Sandburg reminded us all as the stock slid south last week.

Given this, it’s credible that Facebook wants the engineers, the servers and the ads network owned by Opera. The former could speed the performance of its site on all devices, especially the iPhone and iPad – something it otherwise has no control over.

This might also explain why Facebook has poached Apple phone and tablet engineers, rather than the social network entering a phone handset business that’s demanding, expensive to fund and has barely sustainable margins.

Learn from Adobe

This is happening elsewhere: Adobe has stealth hired some hard-core language and Java Virtual Machine (JVM) experts from Oracle to make its ActionScript VM run better outside the Flash Player that’s been pariahed by Steve Jobs, in an increasingly browser-plug-in free internet universe of tablets and phones.

In that case, Adobe lured just four people. Opera has 700. Facebook plainly has the money to burn, having spent $1bn on Instagram lately, only to launch an Instagram-like mobile camera app via iTunes. It’s believed Facebook bought Instagram to head off potential competition – Instagram had 50 million users, adding five million per week.

And therein lies a reason for Facebook to buy Opera: competition. Safari, thanks to Apple’s success with the iPhone and iPad, dominates mobile. That confers huge power on Apple; some newspaper publishers have realized this power hanging over their heads and walked away from the AppStore and gone to HTML5 rather than surrender their independence to Apple. Facebook, with an IPO under its belt and managers now answerable to shareholders, must look for ways to end its complete and utter reliance on one company to reach millions of users.

Sounds crazy? Don’t underestimate independence: it was the reason that Oracle first dedicated engineering resources to improve the Linux kernel and put its ERP on Linux, in the late 1990s making it the first big software vendor to do so. It did so to end its utter reliance on the roadmap and direction of Windows on servers.

The question is: what price does Facebook attach to independence? ®

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