Interview with Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie

Products Editor James Gray recently sat down for a virtual gab fest with Håkon Wium Lie Chief Technology Officer of Opera. They discussed Opera 9.5, Opera's history, why Linux users should choose Opera and much more.

Linux Journal: Thank you for speaking with us today, Håkon. First question: You recently released Version 9.5 of the Opera browser. What features are you most excited about in this new release?

Håkon Wium Lie: Opera 9.5 is a big step forward for us. The most noticeable change is to the skin of the browser. It's a new and fresh design that also takes up less space on the screen so you have more room for the actual page you're browsing.

Opera 9.5 brings a number of innovations. Opera 9.5 is the first desktop release with Opera Link. You can use Opera Link to synchronize your bookmarks, personal bar and Speed Dial with any other Opera desktop browser. It also synchronizes with Opera Mini on your mobile phone, which is also free to download and works on more than 800 different phone models. In Opera desktop you can also synchronize your notes with Opera Link and we look forward to adding that data type to Opera Mini in the near future.

We also introduced Quick Find, a feature that lets you search the text of any page you've visited. You don't need to bookmark pages anymore, you can find a site just by remembering some of the text on the page.

Some changes are hidden but very noticeable. We now use the latest core rendering engine which brings with it improved speed, performance and site compatibility. We made dramatic speed enhancements to the e-mail client and handling of RSS feeds.

Lastly, we improved our Fraud Protection technology. Originally designed to stop phishing sites, it now protects against malware. Unlike other anti-malware solutions inside Web browsers, Opera's Fraud Protection blocks both hacked sites that distribute malware unintentionally as well as sites that try to trick users into clicking links that load malicious software.

We really feel this is the best Opera browser yet released, although we have much more to come.

LJ: What can you tell us about your vision for post-9.5 development?

Lie: I can't reveal all the improvements and features we are working on, because we want them to be a surprise, but you should definitely expect Opera Link to be improved. We'll continue to evolve our standards-support and I suspect you will also see even more performance and speed improvements.

LJ: What do you feel sets Opera apart from other browsers technologically speaking?

Lie: There's a craft to what we do. Making a browser fast, while packing in features without adding bloat to the browser is a real testament to the art of what we do and the effort we put in.

We are also able to port our code so it can run on a variety of operating systems and devices. You can get the exact same Opera rendering engine on your Linux machine as you can on a home automation wallpad in Korea or a picture frame in Japan. These products are in the market today and it's a real testament to the engineering talent we're fortunate to have.

LJ: The number of users of Opera doesn't seem to match its quality level, at least among Linux Journal readers. Why do you think this is the case? And what is your 'elevator speech' on why one should choose Opera over other browsers?

Lie: We'd like to have more users on Linux. At Opera, we believe in open standards, security, speed, performance and features -- these are values that we share with the Linux community. The one issue that sets us apart is the source code. We're very proud of our source code and we'd like to show it to others, but we haven't found a business model that allows us to do so while still charging for commercial use.

(Ideally, I'd like to see an open source license similar to the Creative Commons non-commercial license. The license would say "here's the source code, feel free to use and reuse it, but we'd like a cut if you make money from it". This model seems more fair than the current "here's the source code, feel free to use and reuse it and deploy it in your mega-million [dollar] data centers if you like".)

Anyway, on the Web I believe open standards are much more important than open source. The content we create on the Web will last much longer than any browser you use. Also, you can easily switch to another browser in the future but it's much harder to re-code the content of the Web. Therefore, I encourage Linux users to not only consider the license of the browser they use.

LJ: You supported Linux quite early on. What prompted this decision?

Lie: There were several reasons. Many of the employees Opera hired were Linux users, myself included. And we wanted our favorite browser to be available on our platform of choice. Unlike some other browser vendors, we are not attached to any particular operating system. Furthermore, porting to Linux was quite easy to do for us. Therefore, the decision was easy to make.

Today we have many customers on Linux in the embedded space, so it also makes commercial sense for us to be on Linux.

LJ: How did Opera get started?

Lie: Opera started as a research project within Telenor, the Norwegian telephone company. It was founded by Jon von Tetzchner and Geir Ivarsøy. I was part of the group at Telenor, but I didn't think we could compete with Mosaic. That was fairly dumb thinking on my part.

Instead of working on a new browser, I wanted to improve the technical foundation of the Web. Therefore, I went to CERN in Switzerland to work with Tim Berners-Lee on Web specifications. I proposed Cascading Style Sheets while in 1994 and took the specification with me to W3C a little later. As a W3C staff member, I worked to have Netscape and Internet Explorer support CSS interoperably. That was quite hard as none of them had a tradition for following standards written by others. Not so at Opera. Opera started working on CSS support in 1998 and after seeing Opera's amazing progress for three months, I was convinced: these guys can compete with anyone! At that point I decided to join the company.

The brain behind Opera's CSS implementation was Geir Ivarsøy. He's the best programmer I have known, and working closely with him for several years was a privilege. Geir also contributed the "Opera" name to the company during a period when he listened to lots of opera music.

Unfortunately, Geir died in 2006 after a long battle with cancer. Opera 9 states "In memory of Geir Ivarsøy" on its "Opera:About" page.

LJ: You have your headquarters in Oslo, Norway, and nine other satellite offices. What role do your satellite offices play?

Lie: Each office plays its own role. Overall, they bring us closer to our customers both big companies and individual consumers. They help us reach people on their own terms and greatly expand our ability to make Opera more relevant in each local market.

Also, the offices are placed in strategic locations. Linköping in Sweden, where most of Opera Mini is produced, has some of the best mobile development talent in the world. Wroclaw in Poland has exceptionally skilled BREW and Linux engineers. Silicon Valley is our next location we're ramping up. We have a smaller office that we are rapidly expanding.

LJ: What is your company's revenue model now that Opera is ad-free?

Lie: We have two main sources of income. First, we sell Opera licenses to device makers who would like a snappy little browser on their units. Second, we have revenue-sharing agreements with search engines and others so that we also generate income from the free versions of Opera.

LJ: What exciting things is Opera doing outside of the standard Web browser?

Lie: We're adding much functionality outside of the browser box. I'll give you three example of how I use Opera myself.

I use Opera as an image viewer on the local file system. When you open a local directory, you can cycle through images by pressing the space bar. Pressing F11 will take you into the full-screen mode where all pixels on the screen are controlled by Opera.

Second, I use Opera in full-screen mode when giving presentations -- we call this OperaShow.

Presentations are stored in HTML, and CSS is used to describe the appearance of the slides. HTML and CSS is a good combination, and presentations are typically much more compact than when using OpenOffice or (ugh!) PowerPoint.

Third, I use HTML and CSS when writing paper-bound letters, which sometimes is still necessary. Using common Web standards for paper-based correspondence makes a lot of sense: the formats are lightweight, and can easily be published on the Web or printed. Here's an example of a letter written in HTML:

Web standards are also suitable for writing applications, or widgets as we call them. We're working hard to make Opera 9.5 available on mobile devices. This makes it possible to write widgets that can run on the desktop, mobile phones, the Internet Channel on Wii, the Archos line of personal media players and so forth. The role of the browser is only growing in importance in our daily lives, so expect to hear more about Opera on TVs, digital picture frames, home automation wall pads, gaming consoles, etc. It's going to be a very interesting year.

To help debugging, Opera has recently launched Dragonfly, a fully featured JavaScript debugger. It's an interesting application in itself, part desktop application, part Web application. It is stored in local persistent storage, yet instantly updates when a new version is released -- just like your favorite Web sites. You never have to check for updates or install a new version.

LJ: What is the one interesting thing about Opera that our readers would be suprised to know?

Lie: One thing people may interested in knowing is that Opera supports the BitTorrent protocol natively. It's very useful when downloading new Linux distributions!

LJ: Are you a Linux fan personally, and if so, what is your favorite distribution?

Lie: Yes, I'm a Linux fan and I install Linux on every machine I get my hands on. Ubuntu has become my distribution of choice, it works very well with the ThinkPad computers I often surround myself with. An old ThinkPad with Linux installed and a huge USB hard drive makes up a Web server in my kitchen. Another Thinkpad is connected to a midi-enabled piano in the living room.

I also use Linux on the wonderful OLPC machines. I recently received 100 of those and we created a temporary village at my place:

I think the period around 1990 will be remembered for three computer projects that have contributed immensely to human culture and communication: the Web, Unicode and Linux.

LJ: Thanks so much for speaking with us, Håkon! Good luck to you and your colleagues at Opera.

Lie: You're welcome.

Contact information for Håkon Wium Lie:

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