Can You Name Your Browser?

Opera’s latest innovation (image: YouTube.com)

The web browser industry is 25 years old, which is an eternity in the tech world. Though some of the early entrants have disappeared, and a few arrived over the last decade, change in the industry has been driven (or resisted) mostly by pre-installation deals on hardware devices. Despite continuous incremental changes, any users of progenitor browsers (like Nexus or Mosaic) would find today’s tools surprisingly familiar.

Maybe that’s why Microsoft announced that it’s nixing its Internet Explorer in lieu of some new engine, or Google is working to recalibrate how it ranks websites. But these are immense platforms funded by advertisers and other purchasers of user data, so it’s not likely that things are going to change dramatically, or do so anytime soon. Literally, the companies are too invested in perpetuating the Status Quo.

Opera could be the outlier that innovates the category. Here are three reasons why:

First, it needs to define success in ways that its competitors don’t. It’s a fraction of the size of Apple, Microsoft or Google, each of which have robust and varied businesses to which they hope their browsers can become portals (aka desktops by another name). Firefox is saddled with outsourced search and a non-profit parent company.

The world doesn’t need lots of reasonably similar browsers.

In fact, it may not need browsers at all, or at least not everything they can do, since apps connect people directly to their favorite sites and services, and social platforms have built their own mini-ecosystems of searchable content. Opera has recently reaffirmed its intention to double its revenue to $1 billion in 2017, and plans to boost its Android use base from 130 million to 275 million users by then too. The only way it can deliver it will be with some radical innovation. Its Coast mobile browser is one such example, as it relies on touch gestures over buttons.

Second, it has a vision, not just for innovation, but for why the very company exists. “Opera is about speed, savings, and ease of use,” said Andy Thorsheim, SVP of Products. “We’re not a complex company with lots of departments. There are incredibly high-quality engineers, and business people with the raw street smarts needed to make money, with not a lot of buffering between the two. We operate under a regime of total product development, an innovation equivalent of ‘total quality management’ in manufacturing; everyone is expected to take part in the effort to build better products.”

For a 20 year-old business, that’s an innovative accomplishment in and of itself, and Thorsheim explained the importance of preserving the ambiguity that empowers change.

“If you have a process that judges innovative ideas with hurdles and committees, those ideas don’t survive.”

Sharing a common vision means that Opera can have a high tolerance for “side” projects, because they’re more than likely going to be alternate, potentially innovative solutions to its “core” challenges. “Recently, an engineer used his own time to come up with an alternative UI for our content aggregator that I’d initially not supported,” Thorsheim said, “Only he proved he was right, and we will change our design in that direction now.”

Third, it has a user base.  Though Opera’s share of desktops is estimated at a distant 4th or 5th compared to its better-known rivals, it has more than 267 million mobile users (reporting 100 million+ monthly visitors to its Mobile Store late in 2013). This user base has been driven in large part by the company’s Opera Mini browser, which innovated mobile access and content compression starting in 2005, and is particularly popular in growth markets, such as Asia (the company announced a redesign earlier this week).

That’s a significant audience for which it can innovate things, like discoverability or privacy (it recently bought a VPN provider), get immediate feedback, and effect change. While this accountability to users also can be somewhat of a limiting factor — Thorsheim admits that the company “can’t screw around with core functionality” — it grounds Opera’s innovation in the reality of experience (and a revenue-creating business model). If it can navigate the competing pressures to disrupt its offering, while sustaining the engagement of its users and employees, its potential for market impact is huge.

That outcome is not a forgone conclusion, as much because Opera’s competitors have every intention of blocking its success. Its larger rivals’ innovation will continue to be informed by statistically dominant software/hardware hegemony. At the other end of the market, the experiments of smaller startups, includingone founded by former company execs, threaten to capture mindshare on innovation. 

There’s also the not so inconsequential problem that most consumers are reasonably unaware and uninterested in browser selection, so Opera faces the challenge of innovating its communications along with its operational offering.

But it’s fair to say that in a browser category that’s old enough to need major, if not disruptive change, Opera is positioned to be the wild card competitor.

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