BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 07:18 GMT 08:18 UK
Opera web browser thinks small
As the Opera web browser celebrates its 10th birthday, technology correspondent Clark Boyd looks at how it is not only fighting for space on desktops or laptops, but also on handheld devices and mobile phones.

Opera browser on mobile phone
Opera is taking its browser into mobile phones
The boss of Norwegian company Opera Jon von Tetzschner does not mind being called a survivor or an underdog.

"We just don't like quitting," says Mr von Tetzschner. "We're not quitters."

It has been a long distance run for Opera, whose story starts back in 1992. Mr von Tetzschner and programming buddy Geir Ivarsoey were working for Telenor, the Norwegian telecom giant. They had just finished one project and were looking for another.

"Geir and I were restless," recalls Mr von Tetzschner. "We needed a new project, and we found the web. We set up a web server and did a lot of other web things.

"Then, we decided we should make a web browser. We started that in 1994, and in six months time, we had a prototype."

Those were early days for web browsers. Netscape was still a big name, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer was just emerging on the scene.

Mr von Tetzschner and Mr Ivarsoey wanted to take their technology and create their own company. They made their case to Karl Klingsheim, who was the then head of research and development at Telenor.

"We'd just heard about Microsoft Explorer and Netscape emerging on the internet," says Mr Klingsheim.

"And then these two kids basically came to me and said, 'we would very much like to form our own company, and we're going to compete with Microsoft and Netscape, who by the way give their products away for free'."

Mr Klingsheim doubted the wisdom of their decision. But he told them they could have the technology as they were determined to press ahead.

Big in Poland

Telenor gave the two no financial help. In fact, the pair used $7,000 of their own money to start Opera.

Their goal was to create a browser that was leaner and meaner than the others. This is not surprising, considering that Opera's first paying job was to make a browser that ran on 386 computers.

Opera CEO Jon von Tetzschner
We want the internet to be available for everyone, on any device
Jon von Tetzschner, Opera CEO
Opera eventually made its program available for download on the web.

It has proved popular. Today, there is a small international army of dedicated Opera users.

The company estimates that 10 to 15 million people use Opera daily. There are currently about four million downloads of the browser per month.

The browser is free but it contains banner ads. To remove the ads, users have to pay $39 (21) per license.

One country where Opera is especially popular is Poland.

"We like to feel good as Poles, and we say we have a spirit of independence," says an Opera employee nicknamed Moose, who is originally from Poland.

"We don't like to be subjected to any evil power, including a Company Not to Be Named which has a base in Redmond, Washington."

Moose is referring, of course, to Microsoft. The company's Internet Explorer currently dominates the browser market on PC-based desktops and laptops.

That, however, may be changing. Recently, Mozilla's Firefox browser has been coming on strong, and taking some of Microsoft's market share.

Opera employee Charles McCathieNevile, who is originally from Australia, is not worried about the success of Firefox, even though it is a competitor.

"It's not exactly that Firefox is going to show us the way," he says. "Anything can take off for a number of reasons, not all of which are particularly good ones.

"But the fact that people are looking around, and are starting to think beyond what came loaded on their computers, that is really the best thing for me. That's encouraging."

Browsing on the go

Computers are only part of the story, though. Opera, like many other hi-tech companies, is thinking well beyond desktops and laptops. Handheld devices and web-enabled cell phones are changing the browser market.

Screenshot of Firefox
Internet Explorer: 87.2%
Firefox: 8.07%
Safari: 2.13%
Netscape: 1.50%
Opera: 0.49%
Source: NetApplications, July 2005
"People's web-browsing experience is going to change significantly during the next five years," says Opera's Tim Altman, who is originally from the US.

"We'll see people realising that the desktop is only part of their web-browsing experience.

"A lot of it is going to happen on mobile phones, or PDAs or MP3 players, things that you can carry around with you and access the net.

"People are going to want to have the same experience on their mobile devices that they have on the desktop."

But making a mobile phone browser work has not been easy, according to Opera's Eskil Sivertsen.

"There are two main challenges. One is the size of the web page. A web page is typically designed for a computer screen. So, how do you fit that onto a small screen?"

"The other issue," says Mr Sivertsen, "is how do you get a powerful web application to run on a device that has very limited hardware capacity?"

Opera is pouring a lot of time and money into finding answers to those questions.

The pay-off is potentially huge, particularly in developing countries where mobile phones outnumber personal computers by a wide margin.

"We want the internet to be available for everyone, on any device," says Opera CEO Jon von Tetzschner. "That means we want it to run on older computers, because not everyone can afford new computers every year. We'd like it to run on other devices, and for it to run on slower networks."

Mr von Tetzschner says the company would like to develop projects in Africa and India.

For now, Opera is expanding its operations where the money is already good, in the US, Japan, and China.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

Microsoft makes web feeds easier
24 Jun 05 |  Technology
New browser wins over net surfers
24 Nov 04 |  Technology
Rivals nibble at Microsoft's IE
12 Jul 04 |  Technology
Latest Opera browser gets vocal
27 Jan 05 |  Technology

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific