Interview "It's really sad, it's lost now," says Opera co-founder Jon von Tetzchner, reflecting on the fate of the company he left in 2011.
Opera had made serious inroads in the Noughties embedding a browser into consumer products, where it was a pioneer, and had a sizeable following on both desktop and mobile.
Its high performance Presto browser engine was one of the four left standing, alongside IE, Webkit and Mozilla. But it became neglected and Opera now wraps its own skin around the Webkit-based Chromium browser.
It didn't have to be that way, said von Tetzchner, speaking to promote his new venture, a free consumer site called Vivaldi that touts privacy and security as it strong points.
"After I quit as CEO in early 2010, there were no new hires in that department," he says. "From that day, the focus was reduced. And soon Opera was struggling to keep pace. To compete with companies like Google, Apple and Mozzilla you have to be on your toes and have to focus on the best possible products in the market."
"At Opera we had a slogan that if somebody was better than us, it was a bug. Then the attitude became: if we're not the best let's see if we can do something about that, as long as it doesn't cost too much money."
"Clearly that changes the mentality of the company. It's always looking at the next quarter."
Von Tetzchner resigned as chairman three years ago citing strategic differences with the board over Opera's future direction, and has kept a low profile until now.
"The company changed focus quite dramatically after I quit. It invested much more into AdMarvel, and buying other companies in the ad space, and also the purchase of SkyFire. The company has been behaving more like an investment company," he said.
But he argued it needs to have a technology differentiator.
"You need to have something unique and different - and Opera had that. It had all those deals on TVs and embedded. When I quit we had 60m desktop users and were on a nice growth path. We'd have blown through 100m by this time if we'd improved on the browser. Now it's down to 50m and most people are still on [the Presto-based] Opera 12."
Opera says the actively-developed Chromium-based browser is more compatible with modern sites, and now has compatibility with modern plug-ins many consider essential, such as the Evernote clipper and LastPas. But von Tetzchner argues that it could have added extension compatibility and yet kept the compact Presto engine.
Von Tetzchner is wooing the My Opera community with his new venture, Vivaldi.net a site offering free mail, blogging and photo storage appealing to more technical users. He should get a few signups: Opera is shuttering My Opera and Vivaldi.net allows users to import their own material.
Vivaldi.net is ad free yet charges no subscription. So how will that work?
"I'm funding it myself so far and we have about 20 staff. After a while we'll be looking at the opportunities. We will not look at your data and not exploit users' content, or allow robots. At Opera we just focussed on making a great service and did not exploit users' content. And our EULA is readable and reasonable."
Based in Iceland, Vivaldi is also powered by renewable energy - geothermal and hydro - and users the wind for cooling to keep the costs down. That could attract some tree huggers.
With Opera having been on the sharp end of Microsoft's business practices, we wondered if its founder he had any advice for the new Microsoft CEO?
"They've made lots of mistakes in their decisions. It was a mistake to make Windows Phone a closed platform, mimicking Apple. To me, it's Google who are [making] the smarter moves. They're making it easier to download the code and easier if you're building devices. Microsoft could have made more sense making it more open."
And did he think the will the web ultimately triumph over platforms like iOS and Android? I mentioned how frustrated developers were targeting several - the FT, for one, shunned both and its apps are written in HTML5.
"In the 1990s people saw Microsoft suddenly controlling market - and they all decided to back this web thing. Hopefully it will all happen again," he told us. ®