You make the world's best browser. It's smaller and faster than Internet Explorer, and a lot more secure, and every year you think up new ideas that make browsing easier. Then a rival appears that steals your ideas and yet only manages to produce a slower, clunkier and feature limited version of your browser - and the press reacts as if it's just discovered the internet for the first time. What do you do?
So far, Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner has been pretty circumspect about FireFox - and he's always said respectful things[*] about Mozilla browsers to us. But he did take a swideswipe at the open source project in an interview with CNET this week.
"A lot of people don't like our ads, which is sad as we don't have a rich sugar daddy like the Mozilla Foundation. They [the Mozilla Firefox team] don't have to think about money as they're being funded. We're not being funded," he said.
A fair comment, or not?
Well, the Mozilla Foundation was founded with a $2 million donation from AOL, when the latter washed its hands of the albatross in 2003. AOL had inherited the world's most popular web browser, but thanks to the spectacular self-indulgence of the Mozilla programmers, had nothing to show for it five years later. Firefox has gone some way to redressing this reputation for buggy bloatware, but the fact remains that Microsoft's dominance is not due to nefarious channel tactics, which it had been obliged to give up when the Antitrust trial started, but to Mozilla's failure to give the public a halfway decent browser for several years. Mozilla had it, but threw it away.
But looking at the staffing levels of the Mozilla Foundation, and its marketing spend, tells a different story. With only around 20 employees, it certainly isn't SMERSH.
So we're not sure how wise this aside from von Tetzchner is. Opera's insane focus on usability and performance certainly comes from knowing that a paying user base pays its rent. Stop satisfying the users, and Opera is no more. And side by side comparisons of Opera and Firefox invariably show the former standing proud: its blazing rendering speed and caching leave Firefox standing. Firefox's greatest strength is its extensibility, but that's also it greatest weakness: if you need to add anything more than the most rudimentary functionality to the browser it soon turns into a Heath Robinson hairball of conflicting add-ins. (And after all that, you still can't move the tabs around...) Opera is a public company that's expanding at a healthy clip, and it shouldn't need to worry.
For several years Opera was the subject of a muttering campaign in Silicon Valley from jealous developers who couldn't quite believe that something so wonderful could also be self-supporting. Opera, they said, must be receiving sponsorship: probably from the EU or the Norwegian government. These rumors were entirely unfounded: Opera has always had to make its way from honest revenue. People can, and do, pay for quality. ®
Bootnote[*] "You have to hand it to them they have made a browser that works. It's not as small as Opera, but these are not stupid guys. Mozilla is very powerful."