This week in the Index's tech column~ The third browser: Internet surfers at the Opera

Looking for a way to “just say no” to Microsoft? Going to the Opera may just be your ticket.

Created in Norway in 1996, Opera is the number 3 Web browser in the world today behind Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator.

Its distinguishing characteristics are that it’s light, fast, free and very Linux-friendly.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Browser is now dominating the browser market in the United States, surpassing the once dominant browser maker Netscape.

The Internet access landscape was different in 1996, when the Opera browser first launched.

Early interfaces such as Gopher, already five years old, and three-year-old Mosaic, were still in use. The year 1996 saw the Web browser war, fought primarily between Netscape and Microsoft, rushing in a new age in software development, whereby new releases are made quarterly with the help of Internet users eager to test upcoming beta versions.

The latest Opera version 6.0 for Windows Beta 1 was released this week and is a free ad-sponsored browser.

Opera has recently announced its 5.12 version for all OS’s including Apple’s new OS X and supports Linux several other platforms.

From Opera Software’s headquarters in Oslo, Norway, the companies’ Chief Technology Officer Håkon Wium Lie gave us 10 minutes for 10 questions about Opera’s back story and a glimpse into the Internet’s future.

Q: How did Opera begin?

Håkon: It started as a research project at Norwegian Telecom in the early days when there were no good browsers for the PC platform.

Netscape later came along and surpassed Opera, but Opera has steadily developed. It operates much smaller. It used to fit on a floppy (1.44 MB) and it’s still just 2 MB so it’s about 1/10th of the size of the other browsers.

It’s very quick to download and you can run it on older machines that don’t have much memory or processing power. That’s what makes it possible to fit Opera into many of the embedded devices coming out.

Q: Where did the name for Opera come from?

Håkon: They wanted a name that was recognizable in many languages. They wanted a positive multimedia sound. At the time, there also happened to be a browser called Cello that had a musical theme to it, but it’s gone now.

Q: Opera Software is located in Oslo, Norway. Are Europeans embracing technology differently from Americans?

Håkon: I was educated at MIT in 1990 and MIT had all the computers and networks and all the know-how and creative people – and really the Web should have been invented there.

It wasn’t. Instead it was invented in an obscure physics lab in Europe. I think you will find a lot of talent outside of Silicon Valley and Seattle. For us, being in Oslo is a benefit.

For one, programmers aren’t that expensive since we don’t compete with as many companies. Also, being in Scandinavia, we have Nokia and Ericsson next door which is helpful when we try to get into the wireless arena.

Q: What’s the current install base of the Opera browser?

Håkon: It’s hard to count since we let people download Opera for free. We think it’s around 6 million users worldwide. It puts Opera in third position behind Microsoft and Netscape.

We also sell Opera. You can use it for free if you accept a little advertisement in the corner but you can buy a license – so in this case Opera is the Number One best-selling browser in the world.

Q: How is Opera better?

Håkon: Opera is not only smaller, it is faster. Opera has better support for standards on the web as laid out by the W3C. While Microsoft has been beaten into supporting standards, there are still holes. If you’re interested in supporting Linux, you can use Opera.

Q: And is there a political reason to support Opera?

Håkon: I think it is very important for the future of the Web that there is more than one browser. If one company dominates the Web, we’ve lost. The Web was invented to be an open place where everyone could join. If this becomes Microsoft Plaza, it’s not going to be a very interesting place.

Q: Do you see Microsoft moving closer to supporting more of an open platform in order to compete with Opera?

Håkon: They’re moving in both directions. They’re adding some support, which is good. And then they leave some sections unimplemented so they cannot be used by anyone. And then they add their own proprietary extensions. We need to stick by the standards.

Q: What’s your vision for the Internet over the next few years?

Håkon: We want the Internet to remain an open space where everyone can contribute and publish and put out their home pages. You shouldn’t have to buy proprietary products or Microsoft standards. There should be an open community and Opera wants to be a good citizen in that community.

We operate a faster browser and we think that helps people get onto the net. We’re facing a huge growth in the East with China, India and Japan coming onto the web very strongly. We need to support all those languages and scripts.

We’re going to see technologies that are outside the browsers as well; for instance, automatic translation systems.

Q: You’re dedicated to the cause, right?

Håkon: I plan to spend the rest of my life on the Web. I don’t want to live at Microsoft Plaza. The Web will remain a very positive place.

Q: Forrester Research recently said they think the Internet as we know it today is almost dead and as we look out to the future we’ll see an “executable Internet.” Does that ring true for you?

Håkon: What comes to mind is Java applets but that’s not the killer app of the Web. The killer app of the Web, in my view, is the home page where you put down information about yourself.

When I have time to surf the Web, I go to see people’s home pages. I find some extremely interesting characters there. I see documents as being the main conveyor of information on the web for a long time. You really don’t need executable programs. They have all kinds of problems: they come with viruses, they’re big and they require lots of processing space.

I think html pages are going to be here for a very long time. I’ve entered into a bet on that. I believe that in 50 years time, common computers will still be able to read html.

To download the Opera Web browser, go to their Website at All desktop versions of Opera 5 are free and Opera 6.0 for Windows Beta 1 was released this week in connection with the COMDEX computer trade show in Las Vegas.

A full audio interview with Håkon Lie can be heard at:

Dana Greenlee writes about technology every Friday in the Index.