Opera’s CEO On Innovation And Privacy, And A First Look At Its New WebKit-Based Browser For Android [TCTV]

Web browser company Opera Software, now 300 million users strong, caught the world off guard the other week when it announced that it would be ditching its own Presto framework and moving instead to Google’s WebKit to power its mobile and desktop browsers. In an interview with TechCrunch today, Opera’s CEO Lars Boilesen said that the decision has freed up the company to innovate in a way that it hadn’t for years. “By moving, it meant that we no longer had to have to have 200 engineers working on the core-level product,” he said in an interview with TechCrunch. “That meant they could work on new stuff. We could go on the offensive.”

Oslo, Norway-based Opera is in Barcelona this week and has been showing off a build of its browser to those who ask. We have a video of how it looks below — with a walk-through of new features, as presented by Opera’s head of product and SVP business development, Nuno Sitma.

We also took the opportunity to talk to Boilesen about what “new stuff” the browser would contain, and other topics like those Facebook acquisition rumors.

He says that the company was laser-focused on launching new features in the WebKit-based browser, which is due out in a matter of weeks. “When you switch code you have to come out with products really quickly,” he said. He even made a deal with his engineers — they played the wager — that he would run 40 kilometers if they could ship all the features they wanted to include in the new build by the time they announced their news earlier this month. He’s now training for a marathon.

Boilesen says that Opera’s move to WebKit and away from Presto was because Opera’s own core platform has ceased to be as essential in the industry. “Opera ported to different platforms. Opera was the engine that could run where no one else could,” he said. Times have changed, though. Together, Android and iOS accounted for 90% of the smartphones shipped in Q4 2012, according to Gartner. Fragmentation has ceased to be an issue for Opera. “There is no fragmentation in the market,” he told me, flatly. But the change has not been fast for them. He says that it was as early as 2009 that Opera could see the logic of moving away from Presto, when “everyone switched to Android.”

Indeed, there is a sense that while switching to WebKit may have made sense from an operational point of view, there was also a cultural nostalgia behind it. Boilsen was employed as employee number “sixteen or seventeen” in 1999. “Back then we were still in the startup phase,” he said. “Now we have nearly 1,000 people and are public, but we still want to feel empowered.” He says he uses Google as a model: “a good example of how you can remain innovative even when growing big.”

The new browser, as you will see below, runs smoothly and with good response, as a “native UI” experience in Boilesen’s words. (this was a live test using crappy network in the over-congested show floor of MWC).

One of the key features is two modes of network browsing. Effectively, Opera has embedded the Opera Mini browser as a proxy browser into its smartphone browser, which it calls “server mode,” designed to be used when you are on slower networks to bring down the time it takes to render pages. (This is in a popup menu that you can see in the video below.)

(Interestingly, he notes that for now the actual Opera Mini browser will remain on Presto — although eventually it and the company’s desktop browser will also be migrated.)

Opera has also overhauled discovery on its app, taking some cues from the use of its Smart Page social features — offering social recommendations by integrating with Facebook, and letting you share links that you like with others — that it launched last year. “We have 30 million users of those Smart Pages every week, and we found that people do want things recommended in the browser.”

But perhaps another lesson learned is that not everyone actually wants to be social in their discovery. “We now think Smart Page is not [quite] the right thing. It should be lean back surfing,” he says. “Things come to you.”

This part of the site, called “Discover”, looks a little like a simplified version of Flipboard in the video below, and the stories that come up are not based on your browsing history, or linked in with any social graph. “We don’t want to know about your browsing history. We don’t want to spy on your history,” he says. “We base this on an algorithm and our database.”

Here’s how it works: over time, Opera will assess what you are clicking on in the “Discover” feature and recommend more content based on that and not your general browsing habits outside of that. [Opera has clarified more about how this will work and I’ve updated the post.]

Given the move away from social signals, and the talk of maintaining privacy while still offering recommendations got me thinking about Facebook, and all those reports that Opera was in acquisition talks with the social networking giant — triggered by the latter company’s clear interest in mobile, and clear lack of mobile browser, and Opera’s large base of mobile users particularly in emerging markets.

Unsurprisingly, Boilesen gave no comment, just a laugh and an uncomfortable look away. Too hard to read into this. And this: “We have 240 million mobile users, 32% of them (85 million) on smartphones. That means we are playing in the big league.” Similarly, he was unable to explain why co-founder Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner was suddenly selling off shares — he owned 10% and could have blocked a sale. (One other theory: he liked Presto and didn’t agree with the decision.)

But if there ever was a sale on the cards, it’s off the cards now. “It’s true that in Norway if you have more than 10% you can block an acquisition, but at Opera we are not thinking about selling,” he said. “I think things are going well. We’re profitable and continue reinvesting and things have never gone better. And, we just acquired Skyfire. You don’t do that if you are selling the company.”

Skyfire, which Opera bought earlier this month for a price of up to $155 million, specializes in video optimization and monetization technologies. Boilesen says it will be a “two to three year” project to integrate it into Opera. It points to more focus for the company, which also recently consolidated all of its advertising operations into a single Mediaworks brand.

The new Opera for Android will be out “very soon,” with and iOS app to follow “right after,” and then “all tablets,” says Boilesen. After that it will turn to the desktop but not before the summer. Opera Mini, as we said above, will remain on Presto for now.