Opera: the pacifist in the browser war

magnifying-glass-folder-300x225I’ve spent the morning chatting to a few guys from Opera, and a lovelier group of folk you couldn’t hope to meet. In a wide ranging chat over Espressos, we discussed everything from who the best drinkers are among the current crop of browser developers, to the importance of web standards. However, the one thing that really caught my attention was a point raised by Opera’s product manager, Roberto Mateu. 

“There’s places in Eastern Europe, Indonesia, China where huge amounts of people are leap-frogging desktops altogether and going straight on to browsing on phones. In those places 2.5G is going to be around for a while, and it’s about giving them a choice.”

There’s something in this. I spent a year of my life living in China and the culture surrounding the desktop is very different to Europe. Chinese people get incredibly subsidised packages on mobiles, and the network charges are buttons. Computers, on the other hand, remain expensive. As a result there’s a huge swathe of people using their phones to browse, and not touching the desktop at all. When they do, it’s generally in internet cafes and for gaming, meaning the browser doesn’t get a look in. This is now a cultural thing, a way of seeing the desktop computer and its potential uses. It’s also unlikely to change in the near future.

Mateu argued, fairly convincingly, that the way around this was not to get hung up on desktops but to stick your browser on the things that are appearing in the living room. The Wii, the DS, the set-top box. In this scenario, the consequences for the browser are intruiging, because the key to making browsers work on these sorts of devices is to make them as abstract as possible. And therein, lays a problem. How do you build brand recognition for something that, if it’s working properly, will be basically invisible to the end user? 

Chrome is one of the first browsers we’ve seen that really pares back the browser. Google can get away with this, because it’s brand is already so strong. Also, because the browser isn’t the goal, it’ just a better method of serving its other products such as Google Docs. It wants to make you oblivious to the browser, but smaller names, such as Opera, can’t pull the same trick.

According to Opera’s web evangelist Bruce Lawson, the introduction of Chrome wasn’t something that caught it by surprise, nor something that it’s worried by: “The writing was on the wall when it started creating all those javascript heavy applications. People spend eight hours a day on the internet, but not browsing. They spend it on applications, and Google had to ensure they got the best experience on those applications…”

It’s strange to think that Opera isn’t actually fighting in the browser wars at all, it’s fighting its own very specific battles, against nobody at all. Just look at the big innovation in Opera 9.6, the “low bandwith” mode, which allows users to pick and choose which parts of an email or page to display. That’s clearly not aimed at Europe, or the West, it’s aimed at China, Indonesia, South Africa – lands of mass adoption but terrible connections. 

The majority of these users aren’t spending eight hours on Google Docs, they surfing on mobiles, or through the Wii. When Lawson says Chrome isn’t competing with Opera, I believe him, because I think where Opera is being succesful is in catering to those markets that seem niche to the western world. Lawson also reckons the IE development team are the worse drinkers on the circuit. I believe that, too.

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