Opera Software has never had it easy. Opera has always been the browser that is ignored by most, and loved zealously by a few. Yet, not only has it managed to survive for almost two decades, but has also grown into a profitable publicly traded company employing almost a thousand people across the globe. Today, the Norwegian browser firm announced that it has reached the milestone of 300 million users.
Three hundred million is a major landmark for Opera, which had reached the hundred million mark less than three years ago. However, Opera Software can hardly afford to sit back and relish its achievement. It’s desktop market share has practically stagnated, and its head-start in the mobile segment has been practically nullified by the rise of Android and iOS. Realizing the difficult situation it is in, Opera has done what very few fans and followers could have even imagined. It has decided to completely ditch Presto.
Presto is Opera’s layout engine, and one of its prized creations. It has served Opera well. It allowed Opera to promote web standards, push for a faster surfing experience, innovate with advanced developer features, and earn additional revenue through licensing deals. However, it was also turning out to be Opera’s biggest drawback. Developing and maintaining a rendering engine is an extremely complex task. The fact that there are only four modern rendering engines – Trident (Internet Explorer), Gecko (Firefox), Webkit (Safari), and Presto (Opera) — exemplifies this. The fact that Presto had the least market share often meant that developers didn’t test their websites on Presto. The end result was annoying compatibility issues in Opera. Opera Software tried long and hard to tackle the compatibility issue. It created dedicated positions called “Web Opener” to promote cross-browser development practices, and in extreme cases, even fixed website bugs on its own through browserjs. However, with Webkit becoming a de-facto standard in the mobile space, and gaining momentum rapidly in the desktop market, Opera was fighting a losing cause.
This is not the first time Opera is making a big, bold move that few could have predicted. Back in 2005, Opera went from being a shareware to a freeware on the back of a search deal with Google. The move allowed Opera to break out of its niche, and increase its user base from hundreds of thousands to millions. Now, Opera is taking another bold step. Will it work? Or is it too little too late for the browser that seems destined to be forever the little guy.
I believe that Webkit offers Opera a way out that didn’t exist earlier. It’s a shared code base that is being used and improved by multiple entities. Switching to Webkit will free up valuable resources for Opera, as it will finally be able to stop worrying about website compatibility. It will also save Opera the effort of duplicating cutting edge standards that other browsers have already implemented. Yet, I can not help but wonder, how things would have turned out if Opera had open sourced Presto earlier.
While the move to Webkit is undoubtedly the right one for both Opera Software and its users, it’s hard not to feel a tinge of sadness to see Presto go. When it was released, it was the fastest and the most standards compliant engine in the market. It did a lot of good things, for Opera as well as the web. Hallvord Steen fittingly paid homage to the mere bits and bytes that was Presto.
Its software personality was one of surprising brilliance combined with equally surprising shortcomings. It was resourceful, forward-looking and often ahead of its time yet at other times neglectful of even long-stated needs and requirements. It had some hissy fits and temperamental interaction with other software, especially certain plug-ins. Nevertheless it carried out great work and brought the company that cared for it 300 million users, over the years being ported to an incredible number of platforms.