Q&A: Opera CEO, Lars Boilesen

Tim Grey
12 April, 2011
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Norwegian web browser developer Opera recently released its mobile browser platform, Opera Mini, for the iPhone, a release that – according to the company – has been very successful indeed, with over 100 million people now using the app. Australian Macworld recently spoke with Opera’s CEO, Lars Boilesen, about his new browser:

Why does the iPhone need a new browser?
The Opera Mini mobile browser provides a different kind of browsing experience to complement Apple’s Safari. What Opera Mini offers that no other browser does is a compression technology that shrinks webpages down to as little as 10 percent of their original size, before they land on your phone – so your favourite websites load faster while slashing the data charges on your phone bill. So iPhone lovers can use both Safari and Opera Mini, for different situations: Opera Mini is extra handy when you are on a slow connection, crowded network, paying per megabyte for browsing, or simply when you want to save time and money.

Opera Mini is in fact the world’s most used mobile browser, with more than 100 million users and working on 3000 different phone models, so iPhone lovers would be missing out if we didn’t make Opera Mini available to the Apple App Store, too!

There was a little bit of a struggle getting Opera onto the app store – could you tell me about that process? Why was there concern over Opera Mini’s approval?
There was much public speculation about how likely it was and how soon Opera Mini would be accepted to the App Store, because at the time there were no third-party browsers available competing with Safari. At Opera, however, we were confident that we met all of Apple’s terms and conditions.

Do you think there’s a problem with Apple’s app store policy? Should it be more open?
Each application marketplace has its own guidelines about what it allows, and it is up to each marketplace to decide what they think is best for their users and their company.

What has Opera Mini got over other browsers for the device?
Opera Mini’s edge is its one-of-a-kind compression technology, which saves users time and money on their browsing by crunching down webpages by up to 90 percent. That means Opera Mini reduces browsing costs by up to 90 percent for those who pay per megabyte, so you can worry 90% less about your phone bill. A second advantage is the similarity of Opera Mini to browsing on a computer. Opera Software believes very strongly in the idea of “One Web”, whereby your experience of the Web should be the same on any device. Our mobile and computer browsers have a similar user interface, and Opera Mini shares many features with the computer browser (like Speed Dial shortcuts, tabbed browsing, a password manager and bookmarks) to make mobile browsing easier. Thirdly, we offer seamless browsing with a feature called Opera Link, which synchronises bookmarks, Speed Dial shortcuts and other settings across Opera Mini and the Opera browser on your computer.

So Opera Mini delivers people the Web they know and love, seamlessly, quickly, and without the high costs.

Opera isn’t based on Apple’s own browser code, WebKit. Why did you guys decide to go down the path of developing an app that will run code itself?
There are just a handful of browser engines out there. We’ve been delivering Opera Mini since 2005, so there was no need to change the engine when iPhone arrived on the scene in 2007. Opera Software develops based on the same engine for all its browsers (whether mobiles, computers or other devices), and we believe this common engine is a differentiator for us: if we implement an awesome new feature on TVs, we can easily translate the same thing to mobile phones.

Opera Mini isn’t a traditional browser, right? It’s a client for Opera’s server software. Can you explain how this works in terms a n00b might understand?
Well, we’re not a traditional browser company! Opera Mini is unique in that the heavy lifting of downloading webpages is not done on the phone. The way the technology works is that the core browser engine running Opera Mini is located not on the mobile phone itself, but on servers at Opera Software. The servers fetch the webpages you surf and convert the webpages into a different format, so they can be viewed on a small mobile phone client. During this process Opera’s servers compress the webpages, which means a smaller package of web data is delivered to your phone, so you get webpages much faster and at a lower cost. This means Opera Mini can be used on even the most basic phones.

How does Opera Mini perform in terms of speed over the Safari browser?
Excellently! Our internal tests concluded that browsing on the iPhone is up to six times faster with Opera Mini when surfing on crowded data networks (EDGE and 2G) or when not in 3G coverage. Reviewers have also praised the sheer browsing speed of Opera Mini on iPhone.

Seeing is believing, so you can check out a video comparing the speed of page loading on Opera Mini and the native iPhone browser; Opera Mini powers through five pages before Safari even finishes loading one.

How important was it for Opera to be free?
All of Opera’s browsers are free to download and use, no matter what device or platform you’re on. We’re competing in an environment where all browsers are offered free of charge, and web-goers expect as much. We also strive to provide users with the best Internet experience on any device, and we wouldn’t something like a pricetag standing in the way of giving people that.

You’ve had some real success with the number of downloads thus far – how does that feel?
After the approval of Opera Mini in mid-April 2010 more than one million iPhone users downloaded it in the first day, and Opera Mini became the most popular software in all regional App Stores. By the end of that month, Opera Mini had 2.6 million users on iPhone, and we’ve had continued success since then. Our usage has also been going really well beyond the iPhone; last week we were over the moon to announce that we have now reached 100 million Opera Mini users across the globe. That’s double the number we had just one year ago.

And how does it feel? Sweeet!

You guys have a pretty cheeky publicity and marketing strategy – setting up the web page to track how long the approval took, your Mini press release – what’s that all about?
Yes, in our “count-up” campaign we asked fans to guess when Opera Mini would be accepted for the iPhone – a great way to involve our community and build excitement. At Opera we like to do things differently, and that includes how we communicate and share our successes. The Web is ultimately about people and ideas, not code and bytes, so we want to connect with people in a more human and more humorous way. Besides, it’s more fun being cheeky than corporate!

What’s next for Opera?
We continue to work on our desktop browser to give users the best Internet experience on their computers, and Opera for desktop last month became the first non-native browser made available in Apple’s Mac App Store. Try it out! Opera Software is also expanding the different devices the Opera browsers are available for, and we are always signing new partners and operators to work with around the world. Connected TVs are really taking off, and we work with Sony, Philips, Sharp, Toshiba, Loewe and more. Internet in your living room is on the way!

We recently launched major new versions of our mobile browsers on most platforms, which include the highly-anticipated pinch-to-zoom functionality for touch phones. Earlier this year we showcased sneak peeks of Opera Mini version 6 for the iPhone and – even more excitingly – the iPad. So iOS devotees should certainly keep an i (whoops, eye) out for that.

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