Browser Wars: Opera Says It's Not Down or Out

vontetzchnerBrowser market share data published earlier this month by Net Applications regarding Opera Software’s desktop browser is “plain wrong,” Jon S. von Tetzchner, CEO of the software company, told me today. He was responding to questions about the report’s conclusion, that Opera’s desktop browser market share was stagnating in the face of more competition from not only Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft’s (s msft) Internet Explorer but Apple’s (s aapl) Safari and Google’s (s goog) Chrome. It did seem like an awfully sharp reversal for a company that has not only thrived as an independent but has developed a cult following, as I noted in an article for Business 2.0 back in 2005.

Market Share

“Net Applications said that we had no growth in 2008,” von Tetzchner went on, “but internally we saw a 67 percent increase in the number of desktop users and a significant rise in revenues.” He said Opera has 35 million active users, which translates into between “2 and 3 percent” market share when it comes to desktop browsers. So why the disparity? “Much of our growth is in emerging markets like India, Indonesia and Russia — and that doesn’t show up in stats,” he explained. “Net Applications is looking at data that is mostly in the U.S. and parts of Western Europe.”

He claimed to see similar misreporting in the mobile browser market share as well (according to von Tetzchner, the Opera Mini is the most popular mobile browser). But it’s the way people have begun to frame all mobile browser conversations around smartphones that really perplexes him. What many fail to remember, he pointed out, is that more than 85 percent of the world’s phones are not “smartphones.”

Smart or not, there are billions of phones out there. With only 21 million active Opera Mini browser users — and more traditional WAP browser competitors like Open Wave, Access and Telica falling off the cliff — von Tetzchner thinks there is plenty of room for Opera to grow. “There is a mega-trend of increased Internet usage and we are in the middle of it, regardless of the economic downturn.”

I’m glad he’s feeling confident, because his company has some serious challenges ahead of it: It’s competing with the same companies it counts among its business partners, such as Google (s goog) and Nokia (s nok). One misstep and Opera could be locked out of much-needed revenues.

The iPhone Effect

As for that mega-trend of increased Internet usage von Tetzchner talked about, he credits the iPhone. “What the iPhone did was make people want a full browser for their phones, and we have that,” von Tetzchner said. At the same time, he called the iPhone “an interesting platform but not a very large platform. So we are going for other market segments.” It could be sour grapes — Apple isn’t, after all, allowing Opera to be sold on the iPhone. Then again, I personally think the iPhone has more of an “influence” on the direction of the mobile industry than most mobile providers would like to admit.

Unsurprisingly, von Tetzchner is not a fan of app stores, believing they are yet another attempt to fragment the market. “We are seeing a lot of widget implementations that are not standardized and don’t work together,” he said. He thinks that eventually all these widgets will converge to a common standard, allowing, say, iPhone apps work on Android and Android on Windows Mobile, etc.

I’m not so sure the end user actually gives a damn if an app works on one platform and not on another. Once you are locked into a two-year contract with your phone, what are the odds that you are switching to another one? Plus these apps are so cheap that many of us would simply download them again anyway. The problem is for the application writers, who have to develop their apps for many different platforms. For von Tetzchner that alone is a reason to believe that standards-based mobile widgets (apps) will eventually happen.