Can this browser for 'discerning users' make a dent in Chrome or Internet Explorer?

Ex-Opera chief Jon von Tetchzner thinks there is room for Vivaldi - a customisable browser - in a very crowded market.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director
Jon von Tetzchner
Image: Vivaldi

Jon von Tetzchner has seen internet giants rise - and fall. He's been working on browsers since the early 1990s, which gives him a longer perspective than many in the industry.

"I've seen companies come and go. You have to remember when we started it was Netscape that was the big [one]. And then they were gone. And we've seen others come and go, seemingly Microsoft in a position where you couldn't see them lose and then they've lost market share and Chrome is the number one. So in that kind of setting you can be a smaller player and you can still be doing just fine. There's billions of people on the internet so even if we only have a couple of percent - or whatever - of the market you can still do very well."

The 'small player' von Tetzchner is talking about is Vivaldi, the browser he and his team have been working on for the last couple of years.

Vivaldi is positioning itself as a highly customisable web browser for 'the web's most discerning users' -- the sort of people who care if their tabs are at the top, or the sides or the bottom of the screen, or who want to move the address bar around.

It features 'Quick Commands' which let users access browser functions through written commands -- another hint that the browser is looking for the love of a geek audience: "If you're a command line junkie, this is for you. Of course, you might also love our numerous keyboard shortcuts to control your browser," it says.

Other features include a built-in note taking tool which allows you to add a quote, link to the page it came from and attach a screenshot, and 'web panels' for frequently-used services like news feeds, weather and sports. Because it is built on Chromium, Vivaldi users can also install most extensions made for Chrome.

The browser has just moved into beta, and there have been more than two million downloads of the previous technical previews. That might seem an impressive number until you remember that Google's Chrome burst through the one billion user mark earlier this year.

What makes Vivaldi of note is the background of the people building it: von Tetzchner was co-founder, and for fifteen years CEO, of Opera Software -- home to the Opera browser -- until he left in 2011.

By that point von Tetzchner had been working on browsers for nearly two decades -- and wasn't planning to do anything with browsers again.

"Not that I was tired of it but I didn't really see myself competing with Opera: I thought I would be using Opera for all times," he told ZDNet.

But he said when Opera changed its strategy he saw an opening for a new browser which, he argues, fills a gap left by current trends in browser design.

"All the browsers are going in the same direction, they are all just going for simplification, they are trying to be the browser for everybody. We go the other way," he says.

"We are putting in a wealth of functionality and we are really focusing on the kinds of user that actually cares which browser they use. We have a lot of tabs, tab stacks, tab tiling, very advanced bookmark handling and all kinds of options so you can tailor the browser exactly the way you like it. We put it in a lot of ways to interact with it so that's what we've been working on and we're seeing a tremendous positive response. There is a real need for something else."

The average Vivaldi user is someone who spends a lot of time online, he says, "there's probably a big group of geeks obviously inside that group" but also just people who have opinions on how a browser should look and feel.

"Our approach is we think we should adapt to the user. Personally I like that way of doing design better because it makes the user the center but there are different opinions," von Tetzchner says.

He acknowledges that what he is doing goes against the trend towards simplicity in browsers but argues: "My experience is that when you go and do the opposite of what everyone else is doing, that tends to be a good thing. That's kind of what we did at Opera."

He adds: "Over the years we were always told 'you can't do this, you can't compete with other browsers out there, you have no chance of doing anything' that was the prevailent theme. Opera has 350 million users so I guess we managed to get somewhere."

Still, von Tetzchner isn't willing to predict how successful Vivaldi will be: "We have to see where we end up", but says "We need a few million users to basically break even and then we take it from there."

Opera, for example, makes about one dollar per user per year which is a good benchmark: "It's not a lot of money per user but the model works," he says. And if Vivaldi can grab the lucrative tech-savvy audience it could do better than that.

It has taken two years to get the browser to the point of the beta, but von Tetzchner won't be drawn on when the browser will be finished: "The standard answer is when it's ready. We are basically massaging the product until we think it is in the right shape. We felt it was in the right shape for beta now and I don't think it will be too long a wait for a final release."

Also on the agenda is a mobile browser: "We know a lot about the mobile industry -- Opera was the number one mobile browser -- so we are definitely seeing that as a field where we want to be and we will be putting resources into mobile."

The state of the browser market in October 2015.
Data: NetMarketShare

However, the browser market is dominated by some of the biggest companies in tech - Google and Microsoft on desktop and Apple on mobile. Making an impact is a challenge, especially for a company with around 30 staff.

"That's the fun part - when you want a challenge you want the challenge to be good, right? These other companies they are not necessarily going in the same direction as we are, they're not going for the same user base. They are going for a different user base and using their marketing muscle to get to the user base," he says.

"We are going for a narrower user base and giving them what they want. Will we be bigger than Google or Microsoft? I don't even really see that as being a goal," he adds.

Coming from Iceland also gives him a different perspective on user numbers: "A lot of people see Opera as being a small player. Opera has 350m monthly users. I was born in Iceland there's like 300,000 people that live there. When you are talking millions it's a lot and when you are talking 350m that's a thousand times more than the population of where I was born. That's a lot of people."

von Tetzchner remains dismissive of the idea that the browser will be rendered irrelevant by the move to apps, pointing out that the browser remains the most used piece of software on the planet.

"There's always been a lot of hype around this. I remember being told that the browser was dead and that Pointcast was going to take over. The apps are there clearly but on the other hand the browser continues to grow. We've always had apps -- you make it sound like apps are something new -- but on the PC side we had a lot of apps in the old days, actually we didn't have anything else.

"For certain functions apps have a lot of benefits but for accessing all the wealth of the internet and all the functionality, the applications that are there don't make a lot of sense. So I think these things will naturally co-exist: apps for certain things and the web for most everything else."

He's also optimistic that the Vivaldi way might rub off on some of the bigger players, too: "A browser can do a lot more than you would expect and because the philosophy for the big companies that are competing is that they just want a simple browser, that disappears, that's kind of what you are getting. But I wouldn't be surprised if what we do does influence what else is happening, maybe you will see more activity in the browser space."

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