Free as in competition

Now that Opera is feeling free, inevitably the question of open source comes up. There is nothing wrong with open source, even if I sometimes wonder about some of its evangelists, but still we have opted for having the Opera source code closed.

Could Opera benefit from being open source? Yes. Does it benefit from not being open source? Yes. To us the benefits from being open source are small, the benefits from not being open source large. For other products, maybe one of ours if we had any, the bottom line might be different. This is a commercial decision and not one of ideology. Maybe we are netheads with a cause but fundamentally we are in it for the money, and not to promote purity of thought. If we don’t make money from producing a browser, we will do something else.

One reason an open source Opera wouldn’t be such a good idea is that there are already two healthy open source browser projects out there, based on the Gecko and KHTML layout engines, and three would be a crowd. If we all were the same browser under different names, there would be no variety or competition left except for the respective marketing departments. It is real, open competition we need (something that has been hard to get on the Windows platform).

Open competition depends on fair business practices and open standards, that in turn spurs innovation and variety. I prefer Opera, you might go for Konqueror, while your uncle might not even realize that it is a browser he’s using. Competition comes with gains and losses. As time goes by you can expect Opera to take some users from Firefox and Firefox from Opera, but as we are different neither would kill off the other. One might end up the majority browser and the other a minority browser, but there is no reason we will be worse off than now and we are already doing good.

I can’t say who is going to end up on top: we, Mozilla, Konqueror, or some browser yet to come. Hey, maybe a standards compliant IE? Of course it would be nice for us to have the biggest slice of the pie, but realistically the top browser has changed several times in the past and is going change several more times in the future. As long as that top browser speaks the same language as the rest there will not be another Netscape vs IE vendor lock-in. The browsers may have different features and strong points, but the promise is that if something looks good and behaves nicely in one of Opera, Mozilla/Firefox, or Konqueror/Safari, it will do so in the others too. Then you can make your choice of browser solely on which one you prefer, not on which part of the web you are dependent on.

One of my concerns with removing the banner is that having a free Opera for desktop could make it appear like free as in cheap. Unsurprisingly many pundits, including Daniel Glazman, believe that the desktop browser is just a lossleader for devices. That is forgetting that Opera for desktop is profitable, now more than before, and I expect it to be much more profitable in the future.

True, we are only earning half as much on desktop than we are on devices, and by losing the banner we have momentarily taken half away of that again, but the cost of producing a desktop browser is also so much lower. There are only three substantial desktop platforms left in the world, Mac, Linux, and Windows, and they are so alike it is hard for a non-expert to tell them apart. Devices on the other hand are all different to each other almost for the sake of being different, and practically all of our platform-specific efforts lies in adapting to that array of disparate devices. Relatively speaking making a desktop browser is easy money.

As the banner waves us goodbye we should recognize that it has had its days, and it has served us well. Before it arrived in December 2000 we shut out all users that hadn’t paid up after a month of real use (except for the web site, so if you never leave the My Opera community you might never have realised the lock had changed).

We got a small core of paying users that way, but this was too exclusive for an ambitious browser that was going places. As Opera was freed with Opera 5.0, the number of users exploded. The banner itself gave us next to nothing at the nadir, but our paying users did and with many more were exposed to Opera we got all the more users supporting us so we could develop a better browser. In time the banner too turned profitable, and advertising’s promise of something for nothing is appealing, but like the licence model before it it has been holding us back. The banner may be missed, but there is no time for nostalgia, we have an IE market share to decimate.

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  1. Indeed, the Open Source community sounds more and more like religious zealots whenever they gush over the supposedly limitless capabilities of their endeavor. While there are good open source softwares, there are also a lot of good closed source ones. I am currently using Winamp as my audio player (closed source), whereas Media Player Classic is my default video player (open source). There are good products from both sides of the trenches, and it would be reckless to conclude that one is better than the other. We may partake of the kool-aid the open source community is serving us, let’s hope that we do not overdose on it.

  2. I have seen a range of reaction going from Opera Software is going belly-up in weeks, through us leaving the desktop, to your comments, and then beyond to the other side.”Opera’s core business is mobile, mobile and mobile. Its future is mobile, mobile and mobile again. The rest is futile.” isn’t exactly a roaring endorsement for us continuing Opera for desktop, is it? Yes, the mobile web is attractive. There are more phones than PCs in the world. We have natural advantages to every other browser out there, both to phone browsers trying to get serious and to real browsers eyeing the phone market.The immobile pie is not going to grow as fast and the ceiling is closer. But people spend much more time browsing on their PCs or their TVs than they will on their phones, and there are things you only can do on desktop. Furthermore we have a much smaller market share than we deserve, we have a lot to gain. If we can get every one in ten IE user to use Opera instead, as I implied we would be making much more on desktop than we are making on devices.

  3. rjc writes:

    I agree with some of your statements. One of my concerns is the availability for a particular system and hardware platform.I use Linux on PowerPC. What’s going to happen if one day you decide to stop shipping Opera for Linux @ PowerPC? I can’t do anything about that – with source that wouldn’t be a problem.

  4. Steve Harrington writes:Given the Microsoft autoupdating of Firefox with .netframework and the disabling of uninstall features citing that Firefox is open source and it is being done in the name of software and netware develpment and distribution, I applaud Opera for remaining non open source. There is absolutely no question that microsoft is using that technololy to up and download info from peoples computers and their consideration of Firefox as a serious competitor to internet explorer (which already has those capabilities) and have in my mind seriously compromised the independent nature of firefox users, particulary of the linux variety. I will be running opera very soon


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