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Opera is Facebook's best browser play

Gregg Keizer | May 28, 2012
Facebook may acquire Norwegian browser maker Opera Software, developer of the Opera and Opera Mini browsers for desktops and mobile phones, according to a report.

Opera Mini also has an edge that could play to Facebook's advantage: Apple refuses to allow third-party browsers not built atop Safari into the App Store.

But Opera Mini is already in the iOS App Store, managing that feat because it really isn't a browser, at least as Apple defines one. Rather than render HTML locally on the device, Opera Mini is essentially a proxy that shuttles page requests to Opera's own servers, which render the page, then aggressively compress it before sending it back to the device.

Opera's not-quite-a-browser has been in the App Store for more than two years, and is also available for Android, Symbian-powered phones and BlackBerry. Opera has not created a version of Mini for Microsoft's Windows Phone, or committed to developing a Metro app for the upcoming Windows 8 or Windows RT, however.

On Android, Opera Mini faces competition from, naturally, Google. While Google lets rivals Opera and Firefox distribute through the Google Play e-market, the search giant has made it clear that its plan is to replace the stodgy and slow Android browser with the more-capable, faster Chrome as the default on Android smartphones.

Opera Mini would let Facebook present the social network in a more browser-like interface than the Facebook app on iOS. Spooked by the relative paucity of ads on its mobile apps, Facebook may see Opera Mini as a way to show the traditional display ads that have been its primary money maker.

Facebook's app has also been bashed for being slow, another reason Opera Mini could be a good fit for the firm. Opera boasts that its servers compress Web page data by as much as 90%, resulting in faster delivery to the device, especially on slower connections.

Opera's infrastructure might be overwhelmed by Facebook's traffic, but the company has been beefing up its servers, according to its most recent financial statements. In the first quarter, Opera spent $2 million on infrastructure, a 66% increase over the same quarter the year before.

Other parts of Opera would also be attractive to a buyer like Facebook, including Opera's three mobile ad networks -- two acquired last February -- the company's new payment processing technology, dubbed "Opera Payment Exchange;" and its existing relationships with scores of carriers and handset makers.

And Opera's revenues are on an upswing.

First quarter revenue was $47 million, up 28% from the same period in 2011, with the biggest share -- nearly $17 million, or 36% of the total -- coming from the search deals Opera has with Google, Yandex in Russia, and Baidu in China for its desktop browser. Like rival Mozilla's Firefox, Opera generates most of its search income from Google.


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