Opera tunes up

With all the noise AOL has been making this year in its battle against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, you’d never have known there was an Opera going on in the background.

Opera Software this week managed, in just a few days, to reposition itself as a serious alternative in the browser wars.

Given IE’s dominance in the market, it is hard to measure how large that “”alternative”” space will be, but the distribution deals the company has closed demonstrate a realistic outlook and a savvy sense of partnership. Taking on IE seems like the impossible dream. AOL will likely find that out through its attempt to take Microsoft to court over the stunted growth of Netscape. But if you were brave enough to take a crack at the market leader, what would you do?

Opera’s answer: go everywhere Microsoft is not. The company signed a bundling agreement with the SuSE Linux distribution, which has become one of the dominant versions of Linux outside North America, where Opera’s market share is strongest. It has formed an alliance with Macromedia, for which it will provide an embeddable browser for Macromedia products and collaborate on products for the Mac OS. Finally, it inked a deal with Apple itself for Mac OS X.

This last partnership takes me back five summers ago to MacWorld Expo 1997 in Boston, when Apple received an investment of US$150 million from Microsoft in exchange for making IE the default browser on its products. Apple CEO Steve Jobs has never been able to discuss it with a straight face. A few MacWorld Expos later, he referred to it onstage in a keynote, praising it as a good browser. The audience tittered. “”It is,”” he insisted. “”I use it myself.””

With Opera on the iMac, Jobs would not have to act in such an evangelical role. While Opera does not have the kind of grassroots developer cred of, say, Mozilla, it shares with Netscape an aura of great potential that only a sophisticated user would appreciate. Last year the company was working closely with Be Inc., another darling of the developer community whose multimedia-friendly operating system was ahead of its time. Opera and Be were collaborating to take on the Internet appliance market, apparently not realizing that the segment was already on its last legs. Be has since foundered, but Opera has identified the IT renegades with staying power.

Opera’s success in the Linux market will depend on whether AOL stages a comeback in the embedded market through Mozilla, in which it has a large stake. Mozilla, as I have written in this space before, faces some credibility challenges after the last release, and AOL may be biding its time. That could provide Opera the chance to gain first-mover advantage and expand its install base.

At the risk of generalizing, the users Opera needs most are those with the devoted qualities that have characterized the Linux and Mac “”faithful.”” This is the most difficult partnership of all: the relationship between vendor and audience. Opera has already tried distributing through CDs in magazines and through ISPs, but they have to be the right magazines, the right ISPs.

Becoming “”cool”” in the IT business is never easy, but riding the coattails of the two most popular high-tech movements of the last 20 years isn’t a bad approach. It’s too early for Opera to sing any victory tunes. Consider this an overture.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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