Upstart web browser renaissance

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If you search for the term “browser renaissance”, you find a lot of articles from 2007 or 2009 but nothing “new” – something from 2009 written about technology may as well have been written in 1909. I wanted to see if anyone had written much about the birth of several new web browsers in recent months and had commented on the why behind these developments. Many times in the past (when I worked in the browser industry) we heard a lot of talk about the browser space being dead, or that one browser had won the war over the others, or that the browser would, if not go the way of the dinosaur, at least seem irrelevant with the proliferation of apps and connected devices.

Of late, though, we’ve seen big splashes (at least within the tech media) made by the new Vivaldi browser (brought to life by former Opera Software stalwarts), a Yandex browser and a promised Microsoft launch of a new browser (to replace the REAL dinosaur in the browser landscape, Internet Explorer).

What is driving this? Why now? Sitting awake sleeplessly on a Saturday night/Sunday morning, broad ideas spring to mind. Much like late May delivers almost no darkness in Sweden, some technology is as cyclical as seasons changing. Light disappears in Swedish autumn and winter, and reappears every year. Browsers are declared DOA, and like clockwork, are revived in new forms. This is an overly simplistic interpretation, borne of insomnia and an unwillingness to give it much more thought than that in this state.

As Opera has moved away from its former focus on browser features, Vivaldi has grabbed the baton and run with it, catering to what it calls “power users” (and tech fans of features).

Yandex has, particularly with its recent beta launch, focused squarely on privacy (outside its home markets).

And Microsoft… well, do we need to explain why Microsoft would need to murder IE rather than just let it go extinct? No. It needed to start from scratch. I suspect if I need to explain it, you would not have landed on this page in the first place.

So far I have only tried out Vivaldi and Yandex – I can’t say I am in love with anything. I am like most people in that I use different browsers for different, specific purposes, and I suspect my use of these new browsers will follow the same pattern.

Bad Cover Version – Peeking in on the Underdog

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I spent a long time working at Opera Software, maker of the cross-platform Opera browser. What’s that you say? Never heard of it? Yeah, that was sort of the uphill battle of working in marketing at Opera. Where do you start with marketing and building buzz about something that no one has heard of and that is the quintessential underdog in a world of giants (Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari). In some niche markets, Opera was kind of like a household name – and in the developing world, Opera was not necessarily the underdog – but it made a mobile browser that would work underdog phones (low-end, Java-enabled feature phones). It was kind of the “browser for the people” – for those who heard of it. Especially prone to underdog status – the desktop browser… up against insurmountable odds and an engineering culture behind it that had no belief in marketing (i.e. the old “if you have a great product people will find it”).

But Opera had its fingers in a lot of pies, so plenty of people were using different variants of the Opera browser on different devices without realizing they were using Opera (on various mobile phones and on televisions). And perhaps that is how underdogs survive and sometimes thrive. Embracing the fact that you are never going to be the market leader is the first step – and then you have to decide how you deal with that. What niche can you dominate? Where can you find loyal fans and partners? How can you mutually exploit those partnerships?

You don’t have to be a cheap knock-off just because you’re the underdog.

I have been thinking a lot about this with regard to streaming audio services. Ignoring for the moment the arguments against streaming leveled by music artists themselves, and taking into account the growth of streaming and downward slide of downloading, cross-device streaming is happening. Spotify might not have been the first such service out of the gate. But it is probably the best known globally. That said, there are plenty of other services – some geographically restricted, some not. Perhaps even more so than with the Opera experience, forming partnerships is key to making these services work. But the really important thing is to make the user experience immersive. Users turn to what they know – again and again – because it is familiar. Not necessarily because the feature set offers the most or because the service is user friendly. Not taking into the account the aforementioned geographical restrictions.

With streaming music, I instinctively turn to Spotify. But why? Is it because I think it has the biggest available music catalog (without having any evidence to support that)? Is it because I find it the most useful, engaging, immersive? User friendly? In truth, I think it is a matter of what I saw first (and what was available). When I have tried to convert people to Spotify in the past, they resisted if they had already become dedicated users of some other service. I found this was particularly true with French users of Deezer and US users of Rhapsody.

What converts users? With Opera there was a lot of repeating and reinforcing incentives – that is, looking at popular use (what sites were people visiting) and forming partnerships with mobile operators to promote use of the popular sites (free use of those pages for a month, if using the Opera browser). This could contribute to subscription sales for the operator, and they would, I assume, pay some kind of fee to Opera based on traffic.

The streaming music model is more complicated, considering the geographic and licensing limitations and restrictions. I am interested, though, in how services like WiMP can take on the giants like Spotify – find their niche rather than becoming like a bad cover version.