Jon von Tetzchner: Every user is different; everyone has a right to be heard
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Compromise is a word that doesn’t exist in the dictionary of Jón S. von Tetzchner, chief executive officer, Vivaldi Technologies. Back in 1994, Tetzchner was one of the engineers who started working on a web browser that attempted levels of personalization, customization and flexibility that none had, till then. It eventually became known as the Opera web browser. That journey ended in 2015, when Opera decided to take a different path.
Tetzchner talks about the passion and enthusiasm he saw at Opera, and the anger and despair he experienced when Opera went in a different direction. The result was not one of compromise. “We must make a new browser, browser for ourselves and for our friends, that is fast, rich in functionality, highly flexible and puts the user first,” is the mission Tetzchner set out with for Vivaldi.
In an interview with Mint, Tetzchner talks about the journey so far, the philosophy, how he sees the web browser battles shaping up and plans for smartphones. Edited excerpts.
What makes the Vivaldi browser stand out in the crowd?
It was more of a philosophical thing about how do you build software. In the earlier days when you had PCs being used and you had the software with a wealth of functionality but they were very difficult to use. And we come to the other side, where people just think that the best thing is to remove as much as possible from a software. If people are not using a feature in significant numbers, the functionality gets axed. What this means is that the software is optimized for the average user that doesn’t exist. It takes away all the personality of your requirements. We believe that we are all different, and we have different requirements and adapting to those requirements is what we should do in software. We all have the same rights to be heard, and our decision-making is based on feedback. We don’t monitor people’s computer, but rather they tell us what they want.
How important is privacy?
We do not want to monitor your computer. It is your privacy, how you use it, which sites you visit or whether you use any function or not. We trust you when you say you want a particular feature in a particular way.
How do you see the web browser ecosystem shaping up over the next few months?
In some ways, the web browser market isn’t crowded. Particularly on the PC side, there are a handful of browsers, and there are a few smaller browsers besides that, but most people do not know about them and they are not really getting a lot of attention or focus, or perhaps even resources. That’s the way it has been for a very long time. The leading browser changes. When I started, it was Mosaic, then it was Netscape, then it was Internet Explorer and now it is Chrome. Clearly, Chrome has a very strong position. But a lot of the browsers are similar, and they follow the same basics and functionality. They seem to be competing more on distribution, than on the quality of the browser itself.
What are the biggest challenges that a web browser faces?
It is very frustrating that Microsoft steals the default browser all the time. That is just Microsoft back to its bad old ways, and they are trying to lock users in by not allowing choice. Clearly, this is unfortunate. We cannot compete on distribution; they have the money but we don’t. Opera had reached about 350 million active users, we need about 3-5 million to break even as a current organization.
How did you go about with the mission to make the Vivaldi browser?
There was a lot of back and forth trying to find that how do we do this. Because we were surely not going to do it the same way as everyone else. We ended up doing it web based, which is a significant benefit in my opinion. So, the user interface layer, the most of the work that we do, is a web page in many ways. The benefit of that is we can have the fluidity and the beauty of a web page. And web pages today are pretty cool. The designers can work directly on the code themselves, can do changes and don’t need programmers to do heavy lifting. The principle being we are building a browser for our friends, we’ll listen to people, we’ll add whatever they ask us to do, and then we innovate. The process is not so streamlined—we agree where we are going, but how we get there is not always linear. We don’t always do the same things first. Someone comes up with a great idea, and that might just change the order of things.
How does monetization happen?
It is primarily about search. We include a set of bookmarks with the browser, the idea being that you have a good starting point. A fraction of them generate revenues for us. And the revenue we are talking about annually, with Opera being the benchmark, is about $1 per user. We are not there yet, but we are getting closer and closer.
How big is the team at Vivaldi at the moment?
We are 37 people at the moment. This includes 20-25 engineers. We are very much an in-sourcing company, and we try to do everything ourselves. In some ways, this sort of structure is usual in India, but it is not so common where I’m coming from. The more users we have, the more revenue we have to invest in associated services.
Google’s rolling out a big update for Chrome in December. Is that something you are worried about?
We are based on Chromium as well, so generally, we also get the benefits of any improvements. The code that Google has is open source. They got that code from Apple. And Apple got that code from a Linux project. Sometimes it is heavy lifting for us to integrate the changes. But the principle is if they improve their browser, they improve our browser. We are doing what they did, and that is piggybacking on someone else.
Are there plans to make a mobile browser version as well?
In many ways, there are just two platforms left—Android and iOS. For us, the natural one to go for is Android. We can use the same code there, and we cannot on iOS, because Apple doesn’t allow competing software. That means we’ll get Android out first, and unless Apple changes its mind, we will have to do significant changes to get Vivaldi to run on iOS.
Is the Android version in the works?
Yes, it has been in development for as long as we have been working on the browser, because we started cross platform. We did reduce efforts on mobile because there have been some roadblocks. We shifted resources to desktop, and now we are getting back the focus on mobile as well. I would say end of next year is the earliest when we can expect the Android version to be available. We are thinking differently from other mobile browsers, including better screen size adaption.