In the serious world of high-tech executives, Jon von Tetzchner stands out as a refreshingly irreverent leader. The Icelandic-born CEO of Opera Software — who in 2005 comically attempted to swim from Norway to the U.S. as a public-relations stunt — preaches the company’s vision of “One Web” that would deliver a full Internet experience to people regardless of whether they access online content with a desktop, a mobile computer or a wireless phone. It’s a goal Opera continues to work toward with its mobile and PC browsers and with Opera Unite, a new technology that aims to turn PCs — and, eventually, cell phones — into servers that let users share content with others via the browser.
In the edited interview below, Tetzchner, a speaker at this week’s Mobilize 09 in San Francisco, offers his thoughts via e-mail on the U.S. mobile market, the evolution of phone browsers, and the effect app stores will have on the space.
Colin Gibbs: Opera Mini has gained astounding traction worldwide, surpassing 25 million downloads via GetJar alone, but it seems most of that uptake is coming from markets outside North America. How is Opera Mini faring in the U.S., and what kind of movement can we expect in the next year?
Jon von Tetzchner: Opera Mini is doing quite well in the U.S. — the U.S. is on the top 10 list for countries using Opera Mini. However, it is also visible that Opera Mini is not reaching as wide in the U.S. as in other countries. As an example, the top 10 phone list is dominated by RIM. The reason for this is that a data plan is needed in the U.S. to use data services (and not in other countries to the same extent, as a limited data plan is included by default). I believe Opera Mini will become a very popular player in the year to come, directly and through our partners such as Sprint and Virgin Mobile.
Gibbs: Opera Mini has effectively turned millions of feature phones into web-friendly devices, but how will the browser evolve in relation to the more powerful Opera Mobile as smartphone usage continues to ramp up?
Tetzchner: Both browsers will continue to get more powerful, and both are able to run on smartphones and feature phones. Opera Mini is getting a lot of traction, and we believe it will continue to do so. Opera Mobile has been getting Turbo, and that makes Opera Mobile also work very well on limited networks. Users and our partners will have two good choices to choose between.
Gibbs: Webkit continues to gain traction on smartphones and will surely increase its momentum in the wake of RIM’s acquisition of Torch Mobile. Do you see Webkit as a competitor or as a complementary solution, and what do you believe are Opera’s differentiators?
Tetzchner: The mobile market used to have a lot of browsers — a lot of WAP browsers — but these are now increasingly being replaced by Opera and sometimes a Webkit-based browser. I think it is clear that the market wants a choice in browsers. There is clearly room for more than one, and we will be making sure that we continue to provide innovation faster in the market.
Gibbs: What role do you see mobile playing in Opera Unite? What kind of user experience do you envision?
Tetzchner: I do believe Opera Unite will play a major role in mobile and in general. It is only natural that every device has the capability to both consume and serve data and services. On the mobile, a typical example of a Unite service would be the Photo Sharing service. Many photos on mobile phones never leave it. Opera Unite opens up to easy sharing of photos with your friends, without having to upload them or send them over MMS. Convenience is the key here, as always.
Gibbs: How do you plan to lure developers to Opera Unite given all the new mobile platforms available to build on?
Tetzchner: The web is the platform of choice in the world today. Nothing comes close. Web developers are discovering more and more that they can make some great apps using web technology, and as part of that, widgets are taking off. Opera Unite services are basically widgets. Any widgets developer (read: web designer) can easily make an Opera Unite service. Any Unite service will work with any Unite-enabled Opera browser and can be accessed with any modern browser. That is some serious reach.
Gibbs: How will the ever-increasing number of app stores coming to market affect Opera, and how do you plan to exploit the new distribution channels?
Tetzchner: As you mention, these stores can be a distribution channel for Opera. In addition to that, we are enabling stores by providing Opera with Widgets as a way to run apps and sometimes even helping make the stores.