Summary:

Opera Software isn’t sweating the recent ban of its browser in the GetJar app store, because the effort is just one part of a larger plan by Opera to become a major distribution point for native and web apps around the world.

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GetJar’s decision to pull the Opera browser from its app store because of Opera’s new in-browser app market wasn’t a surprise. As we reported, the mobile browser maker likely knew GetJar was going to bring down the hammer because of its non-compete rules and yet Opera launched the app store anyway. Why? Because GetJar is still smaller potatoes for Opera, but more importantly, it’s just one part of a larger plan by Opera Software to become a major distribution point for native and web apps.

I talked with Mahi De Silva, Opera’s EVP of consumer mobile about the rejection of Opera Mobile Store and how it fits into Opera’s larger vision going forward. Even though GetJar said it has had 30 million downloads of Opera mobile browsers, De Silva said the independent app store is, “not an appreciable source of downloads.” De Silva said Opera has 110 million current active users and has 600,000 downloads of its mobile browser each day.

He confirmed the two companies held talks prior to the launch of Opera’s mobile app store, but Opera decided to move ahead because GetJar’s goals weren’t aligned with Opera’s. Basically, Opera wasn’t interested in stripping out its app store and was waiting to see if GetJar would react, which it did. De Silva said Opera is still open to working with GetJar, but right now, the software company seems more intent on competing with GetJar and other app markets long-term as apps, both native and browser-based, become even bigger business.

“The next chapter for Opera is expanding from a browser to delivering a more expansive fabric of service for consumers and content providers,” De Silva said. “This (Opera Mobile Store) is the first step in a very strategic path for us to enable our browser to provide great content and utilities to any phone regardless of the OS that might be on the device.”

As De Silva sees it, Opera has to get into the app market because that’s what consumers and developers want. It’s also where the money is. But it’s not just native apps; Opera is looking at being a distribution point for web apps built on HTML and JavaScript, in whatever form they take, whether its robust programs or lightweight widgets. He said it’s unclear what will win out, but Opera is positioning itself to be a provider of both. In the meantime, Opera is also looking at distributing apps to more feature phones, which is where most of its browsers are found. De Silva said while smartphones are growing, there are still many more basic phones in the world. He said the Opera Mobile Store also tailors each store to the device and region that it’s sold in, so the store is accessible and useful to a wide number of users.

“We believe there is a tremendous opportunity in building this infrastructure for consumers developers and publishers to tap into that broader audience,” said De Silva.

That’s why the Opera isn’t sweating GetJar. It’s got designs on hitting the 5 billion phones in the world, and it’s doing the work now to be in place for when apps really blow up. The move fits in line with the stuff we’ve been reporting about the boom in mobile app sales, which could hit $38 billion by 2015 according to Forrester. It’s also consistent with a renewed push (think: WAC) we’re seeing to distribute apps on feature phones, which is a shrinking market but still huge.

But I pointed out to De Silva that in this app boom, competing stores won’t take kindly to an Opera browser serving as a rival app store. He said Opera is being mindful of the landscape and is tailoring its products in certain cases to stay within different app store guidelines. For example, the iOS Opera browser app will not link to Opera’s own store for app downloads but will send people to Apple’s App Store. The RIM BlackBerry version, however, does handle transactions through Opera when it’s supported on newer versions of the BlackBerry OS, while older phones link back to BlackBerry App World. And the Android version completely sidesteps billing through Google, which I said will likely be a sticking point.

De Silva said he thought Android’s “open” environment would allow Opera Mobile Store. But he also said Opera will be pragmatic about dealing with any major platform owners who balk at the Opera browser serving as an app distribution point. So the Android Opera app could get pulled, or Opera could adjust it to be less competitive.

“We’re not trying to predict what Google will or won’t do; we’re focusing on creating the world’s best browser and a compelling content experience for consumers and developers,” De Silva said. “If, based on some app store policies, we have to re-examine that, we’ll adjust that strategy.”

I think Opera is going to have a bumpy road on its way to being an app purveyor. Android is increasingly shutting the door on any Android Market app that smells like an app store. I doubt RIM will look the other way for long, either. There’s too much money at stake here, which can make this a tough business to be in. But as we’ve reported before, independent app stores are on the rise and are expected to eclipse on-deck app stores in sales soon. Increasingly, it seems like app stores are becoming more appealing to companies with a huge following or a developer community. Opera’s efforts reflect the importance of the app economy and how attractive it is, even for a browser maker. The company’s success will be an interesting test to see if its relationship with consumers as a browser maker can be effectively leveraged to sell apps.

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