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Euro-Beat: The Developer's Case for Opera

  • March 18, 2002
  • By Benoît Marchal
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The unofficial definition of online is the idea that a human being should always have access to a computer. In other words: more Internet from more places on more exotic devices.

Although the desktop remains the primary Internet platform, there is growing awareness of Internet devices such as PDAs and cell-phones in the Internet development community. How do devices impact Web projects? To find out, I talked to Håkon Lie, the CTO of Opera Software. Opera, based in Norway, is the maker of the Opera browser and a champion of Internet access via devices.

Benoît Marchal

The New Browser War

My first question to Lie was, of course, why get in the browser market? One would think that's risky business. "We've been in this market for as long as Mosaic and Netscape," is his answer. "Developing a new browser from scratch today would probably be too difficult anyway."

"We are one of the only companies from that era to have survived. The reason? We have a better product. It's smaller -- about one tenth the size of Internet Explorer -- and it's faster. Also we're more standards compliant."

Fiscal responsibility might have helped as well. "We choose to earn money before spending it." Is that a European treat? "Yes, we are more conservative. I imagine that if we had searched for investors earlier, we could have grown faster but we might no longer be here anymore."

Still, Opera is growing in popularity. "Our product has improved a lot. We have had millions of downloads." Company statistics indicates that it is most successful across Europe and particularly in the German, Scandinavian, and Russian markets. For the latter market, it claims 5.8% market share.

Devices and the Internet

For the future, the company places great hopes on the device market. Although most users run Opera on a Windows desktop, it is also available on Linux, Macintosh, and more-novel platforms. "We also do special projects. For example, Sharp will soon release a new Zaurus device" explains Lie. "It will run Linux and use Opera as the browser."

"You should focus on accessibility and standards," says Lie. "Realize that there will be more browsers in the future -- from devices, mobile phones, and TVs. You can make your site work with all of those."

Surprisingly, Opera was not originally designed as a cross-platform browser. "We stumbled across that market by accident. We had always wanted a small browser, because it's faster; but originally, Opera was available for Windows only. People in the embedded market were looking for an alternative to the Spyglass code and they found us. The small memory footprint proved a huge advantage for devices."

[Ed. note: Spyglass was the original marketer of the University of Illinois' Mosaic, the first graphical browser. Microsoft subsequently licensed Mosaic from Spyglass in 1994.]

"About 90% of our code is common across all platforms. We have modules with the platform-specific parts."

Web Designers' Challenges

Where does that leave Web developers? How do you ensure that your sites work on so many platforms? "I understand the frustration of making an application portable. Projects that have the most problems are also the most ambitious. They want everything: Java, JavaScript, Flash. The combination quickly becomes unmanageable. It may pay to refrain from those ambitions."

"You should focus on accessibility and standards," says Lie. "Realize that there will be more browsers in the future -- from devices, mobile phones, and TVs. You can make your site work with all of those."

In other words, remain ambitious for your Web projects, but focus your ambition on a different challenge.

About the Author

Benoît Marchal is a Belgian developer and writer. He is the author of XML by Example (two editions) and Applied XML Solutions, as well as a columnist for developerWorks. There's more on this topic at marchal.com.






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