'When in doubt, make it an option': How Vivaldi is trying to make the browser personal again

Vivaldi CEO Jon von Tetzchner on his browser 'for our friends' -- and where it will go next.

Last month Vivaldi officially launched its first browser after several years of development. ZDNet caught up with the company's CEO Jon von Tetzchner to find out what he thinks of Google's Chromium, what developers think of the new Vivaldi, and what's in store for the future.

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Vivaldi CEO Jon von Tetzchner: "We take the view, let's build a browser for our friends and that's kind of what this is all about."

Photo: Colin Barker

ZDNet: How long has Vivaldi been going now?

Jon von Tetzchner: It's almost three years but we launched the first Alpha version a bit more than a year ago, and the final release a month ago. We haven't had a finalised version for a very long time.

It's a lot of work. Even though we are using Chromium (Google's open-source browser) beneath, there is still a lot of work.

How are you finding Chromium?

It's a complicated piece of code to work with. Obviously they built the Opera engine with Presto in the past but it is a lot easier when you have a piece of code that you have written yourself from scratch and you don't have other people changing it.

And with Chromium, [Google's] not standing still -- they are changing things every day and we have to maintain their changes with our changes and that's a lot of work.

Is it going well?

It is going well. The thing is that we realised what we were getting ourselves into. Some people seem to think that taking someone else's code and then working with that is a piece of cake but it's not. It's a lot of hard work. We had our first update two weeks after release because Chromium had an update. We will have to do updates every six weeks, at the very least, to stay on target.

Why did you adopt this approach, rather than starting from scratch?

One reason is that we have done it before. With the Presto team at Opera, that was 100 people and that was maintaining and improving the code. So the decision to kill that project was kind of made by Opera when I quit. They thought they would be saving money. Now there is a reason why no-one else has started a browser from scratch in, say, 18 years.

But if you are bringing out a browser, why not start from another browser like, say, Internet Explorer?

Internet Explorer is one option but IE only runs on Windows and we would not be able to change the code -- it's not available. So you are left with the choice of either using the Chromium code or the pure Apple code which Chromium is based on.

It sounds like it has taken some time for you to get Vivaldi to this stage. Are you happy now with the product now?

I am happy that now we have it to a finished version. We have the 1.0, and the 1.1. It was a lot of hard work to get this right. We made decisions on how to structure the code. We made the decision to do the user interface using web technologies. We made a layer so that the browser went on a browser. That took a fair amount of work to get it right but now it works a lot faster.

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But usually when you layer code on top of something else, doesn't that slow things down?

No, the way it works is that if you look at the Chromium code, one of the nice things about that code is that it has a multi-process architecture -- and that allows us to have the multi-process as one process independent from the rest.

Now we did this with Opera as well. We had a layer of code that was common across platforms and in this case we have just chosen web-technology as the layer. The benefit is that it is able to work a lot more efficiently. If you look at the code there is a lot more moving around so that the browser has become very good at running code.

It didn't do that in the past but browsers are now are very capable of running code -- and so having the browser run on top of the browser makes a lot of sense.

So this must be going down very well with the developer community?

Yes, people like that. There are a lot of technical people who love the fact that we are taking this technical approach. Now it's a new approach, it is a different approach, and the fact that we are working very efficiently -- a lot of people like that.

What's new for you?

We always have new releases coming out, but right now it is more about talking with people. We have had 1.0., 1.1, and there is a 1.2 coming out shortly.

There are a few nice things coming with 1.2. Things like the editable gestures [the ability to take a hand-drawn shape that can then be edited on-screen], or tab control and so on. It is all details but for some people, those are the things that make all the difference.

Are you funded by VC?

There is no VC funding. It is personal funding.

Are you going to keep it that way, without VCs?

We have had a lot of VCs come around. And good VCs, people who know what they are talking about. We are flattered by the fact that they like what we are doing, but we don't want to go public, we don't want an exit, we just want to build a great browser. So it's not financially motivated, it is motivated by building a great product.

This sounds like a campaign or, perhaps, a labour of love?

It is a question of design philosophy. There is a feeling these days with all the other browsers, of 'Let's make something great that works for the masses. Let's not do individual requirements, let's do standardised products that upgrade'.

But when you start to use them, they don't necessarily do what you as a user want. With us we take the view, let's build a browser for our friends and that's kind of what this is all about.

We are building a browser for our friends, which means that we listen to our friends. This means that if people want a certain feature, a certain option, then we have a slogan, 'when in doubt, make it an option'.

What it means is that we all have different opinions and we have our users asking for different things. Typically, what happens is that you will have a designer who says, 'you know what, this breaks my design'. And then we will say, 'you know what, we want to give the users what they want and if this is something they want, we will do that'. So the users get what they want and your work as a designer is to make sure that it still looks good.

So it's a democracy?

What we are saying is that there is no one way to do things. It isn't like the tabs have to be at the front. If people want it on the left or the right, it is a reasonable request. So we put in the code how they want it and the people are happy.

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Web software firm Opera is set on launching a new browser this year, according to CTO Håkon Wium Lie, with as much emphasis on appearance as on back-end improvements.

It sounds like the opposite approach to companies that say 'you will have it this way because it has always been this way and if you don't like it, tough'.

Basically. There has been a trend where it is 'our way or the highway' and our approach is the opposite. Every single user deserves their feature, their application, and we find a lot of people like that.

A lot of the way we work is working closely with our users and it is not one or two, it is a lot of users. And we have a lot of volunteers too. These are people we communicate with on a daily basis. They are in our chat track and they have access to our tracking system.

The second level after that is the community and that is tens of thousands of users -- and a lot of them provide feedback.

In addition to that we also take feedback on Facebook and Twitter and a lot of different channels.

How about the US market? That is often a big channel for a European company.

We actually do pretty well. The US is our number one country now. We didn't have that at Opera, so that is a difference. We have other countries doing well, like Japan and then Russia, which was always a big Opera user.

What's next for Vivaldi? What's on your personal wish list?

There are a lot of details but I suppose mail is the big one. Our client will work with Gmail and all the other [email clients]. The problem that a lot of us have is that we all have multiple mail accounts.

Now there are different ways that you can deal with that. You can have the different mails fall into one account or you can have each and every one of them handled separately, which is a chore.

Our goal is to have one client and you can go into that one client and deal with all the email. This is one of the features that we really loved in Opera. People really loved the fact that we had a mail client with an underlying database and it made it very quick to find any mail contact. And dealing with multiple accounts is easy, and you could have automatic sorting so you don't spend your time sorting your mail into folders. It takes away a lot of the chore.

How long before we see that in Vivaldi?

It's on the way. We have a number of people using it but it is not at a level where it is ready to be shown to the public.

Read more about Vivaldi and Opera

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