It takes a few seconds for Jon von Tetzchner to answer. It’s 9 am in Boston by the time we call him. He’s sitting in a bright office – casual suit, just-got-out-of-bed hair. Pretty modest for someone who wants to take over the browser game.
Jon von Tetzchner is a digital veteran. In 1995, while Netscape was at its peak, the Icelandic programmer co-founded Opera Software, and it quickly became one of the big-four browsers worldwide. After leaving Opera in 2011, Tetzchner is now spearheading his second attack with his new Browser “ Vivaldi“. A difficult task in a hard-fought business.
Jon, let’s face it: Who needs a new browser in 2016?
Well, there are more than three billion people on the Internet. It’s safe to assume that not everyone has the same tastes or wants the same thing. The idea of having a choice is natural.
But what we’re seeing is this: all mainstream browsers are going in the same direction. There’s a focus on making them as simple as possible for any user to use. Opera has been moving that way, and obviously Google and Microsoft have been there, too. Mozilla has recently announced it is doing the same. Now, by doing this, they all look very similar. They’re optimizing themselves for non-advanced users.
So what is Vivaldi trying to do differently?
Vivaldi has a more user-centric design. We want to adapt
to the user. The design of the other browsers, in my opinion, is along the lines of: “Let’s create a simple design that just goes through the search engine and finds stuff.” At Vivaldi, we’re looking at the browser as a tool – for someone who actually cares about how the browser works and wants to customize it according to their usage.
Can you give us an example?
Let’s say you have a big screen. Current browsers don’t utilize the space very well. It’s not really responsive-driven. We have the tiling option. If you have different tiles, you have different workspaces. There’s just a lot of functionality there.
If people ask for certain things, we’ll provide the options for them. There are a lot of details, and depending on how you use the browser, these details matter. We are trying to address what people want.
That sounds like a revival of the old Opera browser …
We did a few good things at Opera. And there are a lot of people who liked what we did. So when Opera decided to follow the same direction as everyone else, they left a lot of people behind.
Are you targeting Opera nostalgics?
It’s only natural for us to start with people who have used Opera before. There are 60 million users, and a lot of them are still working with Opera 12, which hasn’t seen a major update for years.
But we’ve also found that we have an awful lot of people who have never used Opera before. They just like having a rich browser that can do more than just open a window.
So we have something for the old users and we have something for users who moved on to newer versions of Opera. And we also have something for users who really just think that a browser should be able to do more.
More of what?
If you ask people why they use Vivaldi, you’ll get different answers from different users. Some like
tab stacks, others like keyboard shortcuts, having easy access to zoom, or ways to change the view of a page. A lot of people like our web panels. And we know users are really waiting for us to get mailing.
On the other hand, you need to be profitable. Browsers like Google Chrome or Apple’s Safari don’t explicitly need that. What does a successful business model for a browser look like?
That depends on whether you are selling a PC or a mobile version. With PCs it’s pretty simple: you put the browser out there and the browser is free. What you make in revenue is from affiliate partners like search engines.
Isn’t that model past its peak? Market leaders like Google have their own browsers now.
Yes, Google decided to create Chrome. Before that, they were paying Opera and others a fair share of money. Mozilla moved over to Yahoo as their default search engine.
So there is not a lot of revenue per user per year. At Opera we were talking about a dollar. It’s not a significant amount of money. But if you have enough users, the model works. For us, we’ll need a few million users to break even. And I think that number is quite reasonable.
Is it? You’re still serving a niche market.
It’s obviously not a walk in the park. We have to get the word out. But the feedback we’re getting is fantastic. And the fact that we are focusing on a certain group of people makes it work really well.
The nice thing about affiliate deals is that if you select the right partners, its features will get users. And because we are talking about fairly small amounts of money, you don’t need to do something stupid.
It seems you’re not a big fan of foreign investors. How come?
When I built up Opera, we gradually got investors in. But some of the investors I got were not the kind that we’d like to have.
There was always that battle because they wanted to sell the company. And that was creating a very bad atmosphere. That’s one of the reasons why I ended up quitting the company. It was just too much. There was a continuous fight.
With Vivaldi, it’s different, because it’s completely funded by yourself, right?
At Vivaldi, I don’t want to repeat that. We want to focus on one thing, and that is building the best browser for our users. We’re not looking at anything else. We need to be profitable over time, but we don’t need fantastic results. We need to pay the bills, but it’s not a financial thing. That’s not the reason why I’m doing this.
Sounds very ideological.
This applies to anyone else who is starting a company. You want to be in control of your desk. As soon as you get investors in, there are other things to think about.
Now for a lot of people, there really isn’t a choice. You have to get some investors in to help you get going and then support you on the road. But I don’t need that. I don’t need other investors, so it’s fairly simple. I’m simply not getting any. We prefer to have it all under our own control and move things in the direction that we believe is best for the company and our users.
Opera was famous for its Presto engine. At Vivaldi, you’re now using Google’s Blink. Are you planning on developing your own engine again?
No. Let’s be realistic: for over 20 years, no new browser has been built from scratch. And there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason why Apple didn’t do it, and there’s a reason why Google didn’t to it: because it’s really, really hard.
You did it at Opera …
… and we had a team of more than 100 people working solely on the core. It’s possible if you have the resources and the time. But then you have to deal with compatibility issues for a long time. Back then, I thought we should have continued on it, but that would have required putting in even more work. So the management stopped it.
Now for our small team at Vivaldi, it would take years to develop a new browser from scratch. It just made a lot more sense for us to take the core that was there, and we tried to choose the best one that was available to us. Maybe gradually as we go along, we can make our own little tweaks to the core. That’s what Google ended up doing. They took WebKit from Apple, which Apple actually took from the KDE Project. That’s how it evolved.
But the current situation is that we don’t have our own core. However, we can definitely work on the user interface, because there’s a lot of work to be done. We’ve had millions of downloads with several hundred thousand active users. I think that’s pretty good for something that’s unfinished.
Speaking of which: When do you finally want to move Vivaldi out of the beta phase?
The simple answer to that is: “When it’s ready.” We are trying to come out of the beta phase as soon as possible. And given the fact that we have already had two betas, we are now well into the process of getting it out. According to people’s feedback, we’re getting close.
How about mobile integration? There isn’t a mobile beta yet.
Mobile is a thing we’ve been thinking about and we’re already spending some time on it. But we have a small team, so we’re starting in one corner. We’ve decided to start on the desktop side. We felt like there’s a bigger demand in the short term. But mobile is on the horizon. And we will get that done.
Text and Translation: Simon SchaffhöferFoto: Vivaldi Technologies