Taking on Google not as scary second time around

Taking on Google not as scary second time around

By Nate Lanxon

Fighting the dominance of Google, Microsoft, and Apple is a battle many smaller companies lose.

But for Jon von Tetzchner, it’s ground well-trodden.

Jon von Tetzchner, CEO, Vivaldi Technologies
Jon von Tetzchner, CEO, Vivaldi Technologies

The Icelandic entrepreneur co-founded the company that developed the Opera web browser in the mid-1990s — then competing with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and industry leader, Netscape Navigator — which made its debut on the Nasdaq Global Select Market last week.

After leaving in 2011, when Google’s Chrome had already taken about a quarter of the global market, he set up Vivaldi Technologies in 2014. 

He hired former Opera staff, and built a new web browser to plug a gap he felt his previous creation no longer filled.

“Opera had gone in a different direction,” Mr von Tetzchner said. 

“After I left the company, they basically threw away the code and decided to kind of start fresh and go the same direction as everyone else, making browsers that were more limited.”

Limited aesthetically, perhaps. But, underneath, web-browsers have morphed into powerful and crucial gateways to the world’s digital information, which generates billions in annual revenue. 

Google built an operating system, Chrome OS, based on the idea that a browser can run complex software programmes only supported by powerful computers.

Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers can also handle bulky tasks, like streaming video, file-transfer management, digital photo editing, and 3-D video games.

These platforms let users add new features by downloading third-party extensions to add even more functionality, such as advanced privacy controls, bargain-finding shopping tools, and language translation.

But with mainstream browsers prioritising accessibility over the inclusion of advanced, built-in feature sets, Mr von Tetzchner said, the opportunity exists to be unique in the market, with increased out-of-the-box functionality.

“We put in anything that our users ask for,” he said. 

What happens a lot, with other browsers, he said, “is that anything that isn’t getting a significant amount of use gets removed, and eventually you end up with very limited products, because of that. Our thinking is the opposite.

Google’s Chrome browser used to have a built-in app store, but Google removed that feature in 2017, because only about 1% of desktop users took advantage of it, and because standard web technologies had progressed to the point that rendered them less necessary.

In contrast, Vivaldi has added features not commonly seen in competing applications, such as the ability to control Philips Hue smart lightbulbs directly from the software.

Building a browser that grabs even a sliver of the market can be highly lucrative. That gives Vivaldi a chance.

Search engines, and Google in particular, pay to be the default when people launch with a browser.

It’s big business: Google accounted for 43% of Opera’s 2017 operating revenue of $128.9m (€111m).

Vivaldi also charges some businesses to be featured as default bookmarks, meaning their websites are presented to new users as suggested destinations when they open the browser.

Mr Von Tetzchner is confident that his experience in the market gives Vivaldi leverage.

Meanwhile, a recent legal decision could help, too.

In July, Google was handed a €4.28bn competition fine from the European Commission for strong-arming Android device-makers into pre-installing its search engine and Chrome browser on their gadgets.

The regulator ordered Google to stop the practice.

Taking on Google not as scary second time around

This gives other browsers the chance to be the default, when people pick up their smartphones and go online.

“It’s really positive that the commission is looking at those things,” Mr von Tetzchner said.

When the EU settled with Microsoft, in 2009, over the company’s bundling of the Internet Explorer browser with the Windows operating system, Microsoft agreed to let consumers choose which browser to install. 

Google Chrome’s success has been linked by some in the internet business to this regulatory action.

“It impacted their behaviour for a while,” Mr von Tetzchner said of the case.

“I think that is probably more important than anything.”

Vivaldi doesn’t yet have a mobile version of its browser, but Mr von Tetzchner said it’s being developed.

Bloomberg

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