#WIONSpecial | CEO explains how Vivaldi is different from other popular browsers
Vivaldi CEO Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner. Photograph: (WION)
In the first part of the interview with former Opera CEO Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner (who is now the CEO of Vivaldi), we shared with you details about his unfortunate exit from Opera and why he decided to pit his new browser against Opera.
Now we bring you the second part of the interview wherein Jon shares with us an interesting trivia behind the name Vivaldi, explains how he plans to make it stand out in the competitive browser market, shares his opinion on browsers with built-in ad blockers, and speaks about the business model and monetisation techniques that are helping Vivaldi sustain as a startup.
WION: So can it be said that you started Vivaldi from where you left Opera?
Jon: Yes, the philosophy is the one that we have of Opera. The philosophy is all about putting the user first. It is about this extremely close relationship that we have with users where we get feedback from them continuously. It is about accepting that we are different. There is no one correct way to do a software UI. There are different opinions on it and they are all valid.
WION: First Opera and then Vivaldi, what's the connect with music? Is there something that I am missing?
Jon: My co-founder Geir came up with the Opera name. He came up with a lot better names than the lot other names that I came up with.
WION: So what all names you actually came up with?
Jon: The typical techie names like Map (a name for the browser). I am glad that we ended up with Opera instead of Map. Yes, it is related to music. We love music. And there is a lot of music in my family.
WION: So are you a musician?
Jon: Not myself. I have no talent whatsoever. Sadly, I wish I had. When I was a kid I wanted to be like my grandmother and my great grandfather. They were composers. My great grandfather in Iceland is the most recognised classical composer.
WION: What's his name?
Jon: His name is Sigvaldi Kaldalóns. Maybe outside of Iceland, his name is not so known. But in my little country of 3,30,000 people, his music is played for Christmas, for weddings and other things.
WION: So you wanted to become a composer when you were a kid?
Jon: I wanted to be a composer when I was a kid. But sadly, to be a composer, you actually need talent. And I didn't have any.
I was about to become a scientist. I always had an interest in business, but I had chosen computing because I had to do something there.
WION: So what talent do you have?
Jon: My background is that I am a geek. So, I mean I have been into computers from the time I got my first Sinclair ZX81 with one kilobyte of memory in 1981. So I mean the two of us that founded Opera, we were both geeks. The only reason why I became the CEO was because the other guy Geir, who is 10 years older than me, was a better coder than me - sadly. It was actually an eye-opener for me. He was so much better.
In the first years of Opera, I coded the UI and he coded the core part. But my focus was more on usability, accessibility and how things look and feel. But I think I was a good coder, but there is a big difference between a good and a fantastic.
WION: If not Opera, what would it have been then?
Jon: I had two different pasts. I was working at the research lab at Telenor. I was actually planning to go to MIT and take a doctorate degree there - Doctorate in Informatics. But instead it became Opera. I am not sure what else would have happened. I was working at the research lab. I was about to become a scientist. I always had an interest in business, but I had chosen computing because I had to do something there.
WION: You began with a startup (Opera) and now you are back to a startup (Vivaldi)? How has it changed your daily routine?
Jon: One of the difficulties for me now is that the team is not with me. Most of the team is in Norway and Iceland. So that's a little bit hard. Because I love being with my team. But as soon as I get up, I connect with them. I may not even get out of bed. I just get my computer and I am online and talking what's happening this morning. Hit the shower, get online, follow up what's happening and communicate, basically.
WION: At what time do you start your day? How early?
Jon: I mean, it depends. I am really a wee person. But after moving to the US, I am quite often waking up at 6 o'clock in the morning. The good thing for me in the US is that I work from home and I work from the innovation house, which is a 5-minute walk away. So I like that. I don't like to commute.
WION: I am not going to ask you why do we need a new browser. Because I personally believe we need innovation in the browser space. There are a few browsers available. These browsers look different, but in terms of functionality, they work more or less the same. Having said that it's very difficult to make people, who are used to using a particular browser, switch to a new one. And to make that shift happen, you need something really interesting. So in such a scenario, how are you planning to make people move to Vivaldi?
Jon: So this is the position. I have been in my whole life in many ways. With Opera, we were always the underdog. Actually, we got to be very big in mobile. We got to be very big in TVs, in game consoles and things like that. And even on the PC side, we got to be quite big in certain markets. But in markets like the US, they always say who uses Opera? It never really got too much of a foothold in the American markets. So I am kind of used to a situation where you have to work for every user. And this is what this is about.
We have to, and we do, focus on what users want. We just put in a lot of functionality that users want. We combine that with innovation. And innovation means that someone comes up with something. It's not something that is driven by me or anyone at the top. We are a team that works together. And I believe strongly heads think better than a head. So anyone can come up with an idea and the ideas happen in different ways. So, we work very closely with our users and then we must build products that are good enough for them to share with their friends. That's really what this is about.
The Vivaldi team in Iceland. (WION)
Then we think what we see if people download Vivaldi. They give it a bit of time. I mean most people who download it, they say it looks nice, it's more colourful and has a fresh design and approach. And then you spend a bit of time with it.
You get to know the features better, you get to know certain differences that allow you to work a lot faster. So if you give it enough time, then you learn a little bit more. I think a lot of people will like what Vivaldi is all about. And that's what we are seeing. And if you see the people who start to use Vivaldi, they become extremely enthusiastic.
We do not monitor how you use the browser. We just take your words for it. If you say you want this, we will put it in.
We see that in comments on Facebook and Twitter. We see that in the comments on our community. People are really enthusiastic about what we are doing. They like the philosophy that if they ask for things generally our answer is yes. It may take a little bit of time, because we do get a lot of requests. So, the general thing is that we see every user as someone that should be able to get the browser they want and that means for us to provide different options so people can change them. So they get the perfect browser for them. So there is a a lot of options being added all the time. And if there is disagreement on something, let's make it possible to do it both ways.
WION: You said you are going to make Vivaldi an innovation-driven browser and you are working closely with your community. And also, many a time, you have been quoted as saying that tools should adapt to users, instead of making users adapt to them. So what exactly are you doing? What different are you doing with Vivaldi?
Jon: The typical approach that we are seeing is that Opera did this, Firefox did this. Well, they say they have monitoring of their users - not individually, but they see this function is getting this much used or that function is getting that much used. So then they remove a function if too small a fraction is using it. And then you end up building a browser that is optimised for average user. Because if you take all the things that we have on special requests away, then you just end up with a browser that is quite limited in its approach. We are a little different here. So if you requested, we put it.
We do not monitor how you use the browser. We just take your words for it. If you say you want this, we will put it in. That means gradually we put in a lot of different ways to do the same thing. Some people want to close tabs by clicking the "x". Some people want to use Ctrl + F4. Some people want to middle click it. So there are a lot of different ways to do the same thing. You want to go back and froth in history, you can do that by clicking the arrows, you can do that by using mouse gestures, you can do that by using keyboard shortcuts. I mean these are all different ways to do the same thing. And what I am finding is that people have different opinions on what works best with their work flow. And that's really what this is all about. All those things can be customised. We put in what we believe is the best default values. But if you don't like those default values, you can get it your way. So this is part of it.
The web as we know it has the benefit of having ads. You may not like them, but I think the consequences of the opposite is worse.
Then there is innovative part. There is always how do you innovate and things like that. To me how do you kill innovation. And you kill innovation by not allowing people to be innovative, by telling that everything needs to go through a centralised hub and things like that.
As an example, in our case, I love the fact that guys just say I just did this. And we have a feature in v1.5, which is an example of this. So this designer Henrik got himself a new toy. So he got himself a Philips Hue, which is a smart bulb. So we have this nice little feature in Vivaldi. We change the colour of the browser when you visit a site - Facebook, becomes blue; Vivaldi becomes red, and things like that. So that's a feature that is coming in 1.5. So this is an example of the innovation that happens. And the point is he came to work and he said guys, come and see this. This is what I did the other weekend. And we all gathered around him and said this is cool. Let's get it in. So this is how the innovation happens.
(You can go here to see what’s new in the latest version (version 1.5) of Vivaldi.)
WION: As you said you always say yes to requests that you get from users. Don't you think by acknowledging all the requests there is a likelihood of the browser getting cluttered over a period of time?
Jon: Not really, because this is about options. For example, with other browsers, the options on the Settings page is something that they don't really spend a lot of time on. They don't want you to use them. They want you to use the browser as is. In our case, we spend a lot of time making that Settings page easy to use. But out of the box, it is not supposed to be cluttered, but you can then make it as cluttered as you like. That's your choice as a user. So, it's up to you.
WION: So what kind of feature requests are you getting from users nowadays or for that matter you got in the last few weeks or few months?
Jon: A lot of it is about details. Like middle clicking the tab to close it, for example. Or when you click the active tab to activate the previously active tab. Things like that. Or mouse gestures that allow you to do slightly more advanced functionality. Then there are a lot of people who are just waiting for our mail client. So, it's not one thing, because all our users are individuals. So they have very different opinions. Every now and then, there is a rant from someone saying that why you are doing this, you should be doing this. We can't satisfy them all at the same time. But our goal is to satisfy them all. It just takes time.
WION: I am sure that the idea to make it feature rich won't happen at the cost of the speed that it has. So what all technologies are you integrating to make it faster with every release?
Jon: The base that we are using is actually Chromium and Chromium is actually a pretty fast browser underneath. The UI itself is we are building using web technologies. And that's an interesting aspect because it allows us to work really fast. And the web technology has now become so fast that you can now do it in a way that both looks good and is fast. So that's kind of our focus.
WION: What is your take on browsers with built-in ad blockers?
Jon: If users want ad blockers, there are plenty to choose from. That's one thing. But secondly, we also think that we don't want to change the web as we know it. The web as we know it has the benefit of having ads. You may not like them, but I think the consequences of the opposite is worse. That's my humble opinion. So, personally, I don't use an ad blocker.
WION: So with Vivaldi are you trying to strike a balance between the user experience and how the web should work?
Jon: Yes. So my hope is that more and more of those making ads for the web will avoid doing the kind of things that annoy the user.
WION: How are you planning to create a space for yourself in the browser market?
Jon: The plan is just to really focus on building the best possible product. We are building a browser for our friends. We need a few million users to break even. And after that we just take it from there.
I mean with Opera we reached a 100 million in 15 years. A few years later it was up to 350 million. We don't need 350 million or a 100 million. It would be nice if it happens. We just work for every user. Hopefully we will reach some really nice number after a while.
WION: How do you find Opera doing now?
Jon: I am saddened. You know what happened recently. The buyout of the browser business by the Chinese consortium went through. I find that a sad end to Opera. 85 people lost their job recently. When I left the company 750 people were there. I think less than half are left. So, I really see that is a sad development. I can't see it in any other way. A good team at Opera has been dismantled over the last few years. And what is now left is a mobile advertising company. And that's not Opera.
WION: What is Vivaldi’s current market share?
Jon: We are on our way towards our first million users. I know that's a small percentage of the market. But we just started. So, we are happy with that. So, it's a very good start and as I said a we need a few million users and then we will take it as far as we can.
WION: When can we see Vivaldi for Android and iOS?
Jon: Vivaldi for Android will come sometime next year. We started mobile in parallel, but we hit some roadblocks, which is why it is taking us longer than we have hoped.
And Vivaldi for iOS is a bigger question. The problem with iOS is that we can't run the same piece of code. They don't allow us to run the same code. So it's an Apple policy. And if Apple changed that policy, things would happen quicker. If Apple doesn't change that policy then we have to do a lot more work to make it work on iOS. So that's the problem.
WION: Can we see Vivaldi for iOS in the latter part of the next year?
Jon: I would not say next year. But if Apple changes its ways then it's possible.
WION: How big is the Vivaldi team?
Jon: We are 37 at this time. A lot of the employees in Vivaldi are the former Opera people. I know many of them individually. Opera had hired really smart people from all across the globe.
WION: How is Vivaldi making profit and when are your plans to go public?
Jon: We are not profitable yet. We have one investor and that is me. I am funding it. And all the employees have stocks.
We currently have no plans to go public. We just want to focus on building a good product. What happened at Opera, I don't want that to happen again. I want to be able to promise the employees and the users that it's not going to happen again. I want to ensure them that the company is in good hands.
WION: So do you have any plans to go public in the next five years?
Jon: Never. I mean this is not a financial-driven thing. This is basically passion. We are doing this for our friends. When the company is profitable that is nice. That is good for all of us who own shares in the company. But that is not why we are doing this.
WION: What is your business model?
Jon: The business model for Vivaldi is very simple. This is same as for all the browsers. basically, it is the included search defaults and some of the bookmarks. So we include a various range of bookmarks in every market. And the principle of that is that we want to give the user a good start. The bookmarks are typically based on the feedback from our community. What would be the good sites to have. And then a small fraction of them can rake in revenue. So unless the user uses them, we make no money. This also means that we select our partners very carefully.
WION: Can you share the future roadmap of Vivaldi?
Jon: We will continue to build a company. We will put in the mail client. We will put in the mobile version and whatever else that we have of ideas and suggestions from our users. We will grow the company based on how the user growth is. If the user growth is really fast, we will grow faster. If the user growth is stable then we grow a bit slower.