Sunday, September 25, 2005

Aiming for Second

Considering Opera's Place in the World of Web Browsers

Shortly after the announcement that Opera is now free to the public and no longer contains an integrated ad banner, Jon S. von Tetzchner (the CEO of Opera) said that Opera's goal for the desktop browser is to take over the number 2 spot (in terms of overall marketshare).

(See: Opera Shoots For No. 2 and Opera CEO: Goal to Become 2nd Most Used Browser)

"We just want to have more users than Firefox," said Tetzchner.

What does that mean? Are we to assume that Opera lacks the guts and will to topple Microsoft's Internet Explorer? Not necessarily. From a business strategy point of view, Tetzchner's statement makes sense. Given the popularity of Windows and the fact that IE is an integral part of that OS, there's no reason to believe that Internet Explorer will be losing its top spot anytime soon. Even the impressive growth of Firefox has been slowing, and there have been increasing concerns over the alternative browser's security risks. Whether these risks are real or imagined, people are certainly feeling more wary, making the job of Firefox advocates a bit more difficult.

Furthermore, reaching the #2 spot would entail a significant increase in Opera's marketshare, and Tetzchner believes that the increased usage of Opera (combined with search and service partnerships) will eventually make up for and surpass the revenue that used to come from integrated ads and paid-for user licenses.

Would Opera like to be the #1 browser (in terms of marketshare)? Of course, which is why Tetzchner said "for now" when discussing the goal of making Opera the #2 browser behind Internet Explorer. The thing to note here, however, is that Opera Software is not obsessed with beating IE and becoming the dominant desktop browser, which is worth discussing further.

There's room at the top

Opera and Firefox (like Coke and Pepsi) are similar in many ways, but have enough differences that people will have strong preferences towards one or the other. In terms of overall marketshare, how this will play out depends on the relative strengths of each product, but also successful marketing, the momentum of trends, and how well each product responds to the evolving demands placed on internet users. Tetzchner believes that Opera can win over more users than Firefox in the long run; Opera going ad and license free certainly provides a new challenge to Firefox. Only time will tell who will come out on top.

What's worth noting, however, is the statement that Tetzchner made about being #2. Regarding Firefox, he said, "I hope they have a significant market share as well." Such a statement reveals something about Opera's view of how it fits into the world of web browsers. Opera Software seems to understand that it does not need to be #1 in order to succeed, and it certainly does not need to dominate the usage statistics the way that Internet Explorer currently does. As long as Opera has a decent marketshare, web site operators will be compelled to make their webpages more standards compliant or suffer the consequences of alienating a significant part of their audience. That is one reason why Tetzchner has always said that Firefox's success has been good for Opera. Sites designed to work well with Firefox (which is more standards compliant than IE) tend to also work well with Opera. I suspect that if Opera Software had a choice, they'd prefer Firefox to be #1 instead of IE being #1.

Diversity is good

Opera Software understands that a healthy World Wide Web is one which is based on open (non-proprietary) standards that allow for different approaches and designs to meet diverse needs. In other words, in an open standards-based web, there's room for more than one browser, and room for more than one rendering engine. The web is expanding beyond the constraints of the traditional desktop, and we need more than one approach to create the best solutions for different venues. Gecko, the rendering engine of Firefox, is a really good engine, but that doesn't mean it can (or should) do everything. Presto, Opera's rendering engine, can do things that Gecko cannot, and vice versa (no disrespect to KHTML, I just don't know much about it, though I think Safari RSS looks like a nice product). Presto's small size and speed makes it excellent for browsing on mobile devices. Opera's voice command technology is useful for home media applications. ERA (extensible rendering architecture) is an amazing technology, as well. Perhaps techies with their really large monitors find that feature a bit extraneous, but when you consider the people all over the world who own smaller/low-resolution monitors, ERA is a godsend. ERA's value will be proven even further when browsing on mobile devices becomes more popular in the US and elsewhere.

On the other hand, Firefox, with its extensibility, allows users with very specific needs to build extra functions into their browser, which makes Firefox a really good development platform for specialized niche users. (e.g. bioinformaticists, to name just one example). Whether the extension concept is really the best one for the general internet-using public, however, is one that is constantly debated. There's an ongoing debate regarding which philosophy is better--having users download extensions to meet their needs (Firefox), or having features built-in and somewhat hidden, to be discovered gradually as the user becomes more familiar with the software (Opera).

I'm not going to get into that here, because the point I'm trying to make is that internet users have a choice, and choice is a good thing. I think it is vitally important that Opera does not try to become too much like the competition just for the sake of being popular. That would result in a software monoculture, and everyone would lose out because of it. Opera is a leader in web browser innovation, and if continuing to innovate while adhering to standards means less popularity and not being #1 on the desktop, that's a trade-off I'm willing to accept, and that seems to be Opera Software's stance as well. (Of course, the company is working hard to remain the leader in mobile browsing technology, where most it makes of its revenue.)

The darker side of grassroots advocacy

It's important to note that the Mozilla Foundation also cares very much about open standards and encouraging software diversity. However, one might argue that they have a harder time convincing some of its users of that philosophy. I say this because of the many websites I have visited in recent months that have buttons or warnings saying things like "best viewed with Firefox".

Firefox bannerFirefox banner

This harkens back to the days of Netscape versus Internet Explorer, where both companies promoted their own browser specific HTML that made the web anything but "open" as many websites were designed to work with only one of the two browsers. The higher ups at Mozilla understand the perils of this type of behavior and have made it publically known that they support standards-adherence and feel that websites should be written to work with any standards-compliant browser.
Also, please remember that Mozilla disapproves of and does not provide "Best Viewed With" buttons, when used in connection with the Firefox Internet browser; Mozilla believe the web is best viewed with any standards-compliant browser.

Even with such a clear policy statement, the idea of promoting websites that are "best viewed with Firefox" or "optimized for Firefox" pops up on quite regularly. Here are some examples. To the credit of the Firefox community, people are quick to explain why such campaigns are bad for the web, but it comes up over and over again.

It's not really the fault of the Mozilla Foundation. They don't want a browser monoculture (i.e. 100% marketshare for Firefox) any more than Opera does. However, some Firefox fans get overzealous in their desire to "take back the web", which is essentially their way of winning the current browser war, as if everyone using Firefox would actually be a victory worth celebrating.

I don't want to claim that Opera does not have its overzealous fans, because they surely exist, but the following Google searches are revealing:

For each pair of searches, compare the content and number of links:

"optimized for firefox"

"optimized for opera"

"best viewed with firefox"

"best viewed with opera"

Clearly, there are more people creating Firefox-only sites than there are people creating Opera-only sites. That might just be a function of the total number of users of each browser, but I think that's only part of the answer. Something about the culture of Firefox encourages (unintentionally, I would argue) an attitude of winning at the expense of others.

Even Ben Goodger, the lead Firefox engineer, used to have a controversial browser-detection script on his site which blocked or gave a warning to non-Firefox users. See the archived version of his blog and the resulting discussion on the mozillazine forums

My theory is that this adversarial attitude has something to do with the Open Source community's distaste for Microsoft and its business practices. As much as it's important to be fair, feelings of antagonism against Microsoft cause some Firefox fans to use some of Microsoft's tactics against Microsoft and its supporters, which is emotionally satisfying (even if it's hypocritical).

Anyhow, as the number of Opera users increases, I hope that we won't see a dramatic increase in sites that are "optimized for Opera" or "best viewed in Opera".

Viewable with Any Browser

Before people accuse me of being hypocritical myself by pointing to the "optimized for Lynx" button on my homepage, I should explain what I meant by that. When I say "optimized for Lynx", by no means am I saying that readers of my site ought to view my site in Lynx or even download Lynx for their own use. Goodness knows, I haven't used Lynx as my primary browser since 1994 or so. What I meant is that I care about my site being backwards compatible, that it "degrades gracefully" as they say, so that it looks good even in the simplest browser I could think of, which is Lynx, and therefore works with any standards-compliant browser. It also means that I care about presenting text content more than anything else, which is related to the fact that I don't have any real graphic design skills. The intent of that button coincides with the spirit of the Viewable with Any Browser campaign, but that slogan is not quite as amusing as "optimized for Lynx". I like to mention Lynx because most people don't even realize that text-only browsers exist, and that's something people ought to know.

People access the web in many different ways, and whether those ways are 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or even 100th in terms of marketshare, they all deserve our consideration. Having been an underdog for so long, Opera Software (and many of its fans) understands that well, and that's why I continue to support them.

If you are a member of the Opera Community, you can post comments on my Opera blog: Others can post comments here on lainspotting, but one consequence of hosting my blog on my own website is that comments don't appear until I republish my blog, which I don't do on a regular schedule. If you don't mind that, feel free to comment here if you want.


  1. Why does this matter, in the grand scheme of things?

  2. Good question. It matters only because our choices regarding technologies--how and why they are created, how they do what they do, and how they are used--have real social consequences. This is true for any technology. I am personally interested in web browsers because they are an everyday technology that people feel very strongly about (as opposed to toasters which people use every day but don't feel very strongly about), and it's interesting to watch the cultural evolution of the web (which is still changing, unlike toasters), and maybe we can even change it for the better.

  3. I think another factor that contributes to the "best viewed in Firefox" phenomenon is the Netscape legacy. In many ways, Firefox is the heir of the original Netscape, returning for a second round. Yes, there's still this odd chimera-like thing (pun not intended) that uses the Netscape name, but many of the people, and certainly the sense of identity, from Netscape-that-was are at Mozilla now.

    So in addition to the us-vs-Microsoft philosophy you described, we're also fighting Browser Wars II with roughly the same players (so far), and old tactics tend to pop up -- even if it's new people suggesting them.

    By contrast, AFAIK there never was an "Optimized for Opera" campaign. The attitude was always that Opera was optimized for the web, not vice versa.

    Personally I've pushed the Viewable With Any Browser campaign for years, so I agree with you there. And last month I started a similar one aimed at bridging the Firefox and Opera camps, the Alternative Browser Alliance. (I hope you don't mind me mentioning it here.)