One weird trick to get online — designers hate it!

At the Google Progressive Web Apps afterparty last night, I had two very different conversations within five minutes of each other.

Conversation #1 went

Hey Bruce, lucky you weren’t at REDACTED conference last week. They were bad mouthing Opera! One speaker said, “Anyway, who cares about Opera Mini?”

In the time it took to drink another 5 bottles of free beer (two minutes), conversation #2 happened:

Oh Bruce, hi. We’ve just raised £100million in funding for our business in Asia, and 35% of our users are on Opera Mini.

What’s the difference? Well, for a start, one was apparently said by a European designer to a room full of European designers, in Europe. The second is the word “users”: the second conversation focussed on the fact that a technology is used by human beings, which is always, always the point.

Now, I don’t care about Opera Mini per se (I’m not its Product Manager). In the same way, I don’t care about walking sticks, wheelchairs, mobility scooters or guide dogs. But I care deeply about people who use enabling technologies — and Opera Mini is an enabling technology. It allows people on feature phones, low-powered smartphones, people in low-bandwidth areas, people with very small data plans, people who are roaming (you?) to connect to the web.

Sure, I get that Opera Mini can frustrate some designers and developers; your rounded corners, gradients and JavaScript-only APIs don’t work. But CSS isn’t content, and a progressively enhanced website will work (albeit more clunkily) with JavaScript throttled after 3 seconds. (I wrote Making websites that work well on Opera Mini if you want more information on how Mini works.)

I ran the stats today. Of more than 250 million Opera Mini users, 50% are on Android/iOS and 50% are on feature phones. The second group almost certainly have no choice in which browser to use to get a full web experience. That’s 125 million people that designer-on-stage doesn’t care about. People like Donald from Nigeria, people like Silma from Bangladesh. People.

The top territories for Opera Mini use are India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa. Because conversation #2 was about tangible stuff – millions of pounds, and numbers, let’s look at the economic growth of these nations full of interlopers to our WWW (Wealthy Western Web).

Country Population PPP Growth Rate
India 1,251,695,584 $6,300 7.3%
Indonesia 255,993,674 $11,300 4.7%
Bangladesh 168,957,745 $3,600 6.5%
Nigeria 181,562,056 $6,400 4%
South Africa 53,675,563 $13,400 1.4%

(PPP= Gross Domestic Product per Capita, figures from CIA World Fact Book)

Sure, those PPP numbers might be low compared with the home countries of designer-on-a-stage and audience, but how do the growth rates compare? These are dynamic, emerging markets. Who cared about China ten years ago?

If you don’t care about Opera Mini users in these areas, you can bet your competitors soon will.

Reading List

On Ad Blocking

At SynergyFest Mobile World Congress, I was asked a number of times whether Opera is looking at Ad Blockers and my general opinion of Ads. Here’s what I replied (with the BIG FAT DISCLAIMER that this is my personal opinion, and not that of Opera).

Firstly, yes; Opera is looking at Ad Blocking, and has been for quite a while (you’ll find lots of popular adblockers in our desktop extensions store). We know that Ads slow down the Web, and for many users, they’re expensive: the New York Times reported

Visiting the home page of Boston.com every day for a month would cost the equivalent of about $9.50 in data usage just for the ads.

Many Opera users in emerging economies pay much more of their income for web access than I do in the UK, and we want to make the web more affordable for those people.

(The fact that we’re looking at it shouldn’t be taken as a commitment to anything, by the way. We look at everything our consumers demand and our competitors implement, of course.)

But let’s talk about ads themselves. “Ads are evil” isn’t an mature argument; we need to be more nuanced than that.

For example, the other day I was reading a serious political article. Underneath it was a “related article” – just some clickbait nonsense about “The Best Breasts of 2015”, designed to sell advertising, and paginating excessively in order to maximise “hits” (whatever that means) and worsening the user experience. Now, I’ve got nothing against breasts (in fact, I’m at the age when I’m growing my own) but this is preposterous crap and deserves to die in a fire.

Later, I was reading a blog post about a band I like, and in it was a text ad, telling me that the band were playing near me the week later. I didn’t know that, so clicked through and bought a ticket – and the gig was very good.

Both were ads; one was stupid, the other was very useful. What’s the difference? To me, it was intrusiveness and (related to that) contextuality. An ad about a band next to an article about the band is highly contextual, and thus less intrusive. That it was a text ad, so light to download, made it less intrusive too, because it didn’t delay the page loading or make the screen reformat. Neither did it autoplay a heavy video, make noise or obscure the content.

So the challenge for Ad blocking is to block the crap and allow the good. I don’t know if anyone knows how to do that infallibly.

There’s also the question of revenues. We’ve been trained to expect “free” content on the web, and that’s largely paid for by ads. Before I joined Opera and became an Internet Tycoon/ over-promoted gobshite (delete as you see fit), I had a reasonably popular blog. (This very one! And still the same 2003 design!)

Because it was reasonably popular, I paid a fair amount of money for server costs etc. As sole breadwinner with two young children, those costs were a burden, so I ran ads which paid my hosting and bought me a few pints. I don’t know that I would have pulled the plug without those ads (I like the sound of my own voice too much) but other people in my situation might, and it would be a huge loss to the Web – and therefore to consumers – if independent content producers’ voices disappeared as a result of advertising revenues drying up.

So, Ad-blocking is a must, I think. But it needs to be done intelligently, and (probably) over a few iterations before we (Opera, and the wider web ecosystem) get it right. And if that encourages the advertising industry to do their work with less intrusive, bandwidth-hogging nonsense, and therefore more utility (to consumers and to their clients), we’ll all gain.

Update

Since I wrote this, Opera released a developer build of our desktop browser, with a built-in ad blocker that makes sites about 50% faster, and some 90% faster.

This led to good conversations about ads, publishers’ revenue and how the industry is changing:

Reading List

Literally trillions* of people asked me “Bruce, how do Smart Alerts in Opera Max work?”. So I blew Opera’s video budget on this 2 min explainer, featuring an eggbox and a Where The Wild Things Are puppet.

(*metaphorically trillions)

On the proposed Opera buy-out

I’ve had a few tweets, DMs and emails asking about the proposed buy-out of Opera by a Chinese consortium. Here are some answers to your questions (none of this is new; it’s publicly available in Lars’ statements to the press and Opera’s consumer blogs, but I know that many of you are techies who won’t necessarily read those). I apologise for not getting back to you earlier; the news broke on my last day of a press tour of India and I only got back yesterday.

Firstly, it’s not a done deal. An offer has been made, and Opera’s board has recommended that shareholders accept it. But shareholders need to vote and governments need to be consulted.

If the deal goes through, the shareholders change (because current shareholders would sell their shares to the Chinese consortium) but, as Nuno Sitima (Opera’s Lord of Mobile Stuff) wrote,

the people behind Opera remain the same. The same teams will be developing and delivering the [products].

Many of you asked why we’re doing this. It gives Opera access to 500 million Chinese customers of the consortium, and investment to grow bigger. I am not a Biz Guy so I’ll just quote the press release:

The transaction would give Opera access to the extensive internet user base of Kunlun and Qihoo in China as well as the financing and other support of the Consortium that would allow for the full potential of the Company to be realized.

Lastly, and most importantly, I’ve had Opera customers ask about the security and privacy of their data. The answer is simple, and reassuring (I hope):

Assuming the deal goes through (see first point above), Opera plans to continue operating as a stand-alone company (see Nuno’s quote above). We are a Norwegian company subject to Norwegian (EU/EEA) privacy laws. Our shareholders may change but our legal obligations in this respect will not. All data will continue to be handled in accordance with our Norwegian legal obligations — nothing changes in this respect.

(And, yes, I remain employed; thanks to all of you who asked after me personally and offered me other jobs. But, honestly, despite still looking great in a mankini, my pole-dancing days are behind me.)

Reading List

I’ve got a new job!

TL;DR, I’m moving from Developer Relations to become Opera’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer. Or maybe Deputy Technology Officer, because “Deputy Chief” is almost oxymoronic. Anyway, call me “Bruce”; it’s more polite than what you usually call me.

Co-father of CSS Håkon Wium Lie continues to be CTO, and I’ll be working with him, the Communications Team, the product teams, and my lovely colleagues in devrel, to continue connecting the unconnected across the world.

In some ways, this is simply an evolution of what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. In a more profound way it’s a return to basics.

My first real exposure to the Web came about working in Thailand in 1999, when I was convalescing after my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Because M.S. is very rare in Asia, I could find no English language information to tell me how quickly or painfully I would die.

But I’d read about this new-fangled Web thing, and there was an Internet Café near my apartment, so I typed in “Multiple Sclerosis” into Alta Vista and found something extraordinary: a community of people around the world supporting each other through their shared diagnosis on something called a “website” – and I could participate, too, from a café in Pratunam, Bangkok. All strangers, across the globe, coming together around a common theme and helping each other.

I knew immediately that I’d stumbled upon something amazing, something revolutionary, an undreamed of way to communicate. As an English Literature graduate and ex-programmer, I was fascinated, by both the communicative potential and also the tech that drove it. By 2002, I was Brand Manager for a UK book company publishing on books for web professionals, and our first, flagship book was on Web Accessibility.

From accessibility, I began to advocate the general concept of open web standards on my blog and with various employers, so that everyone could access the web. Then, after being invited to join Opera in 2008, I started advocating HTML5, so people could connect to an open web that could compete with the proprietary silos of Flash and iOS. After that, I began beating the drum for Media Queries and Responsive Design so that the people in developing nations (like I was in ’99), using affordable hand-held devices, could connect and enjoy the full web. Then I proposed the <picture> element (more accurately: a very naive precursor to it) so that people with limited funds for bandwidth could connect economically, too. Then I agitated, inside Opera and outside, for Progressive Web Apps, so people could have a great experience on the open web, not those pesky walled gardens.

The common thread is people and getting them connected to each other. This matters to me because that happened to me, 17 years ago (spoiler: and I didn’t die).

A third of a billion people use Opera’s products to get them online, fast and affordably. I want to be part of making that half a billion, then a billion, then more; not by stealing customers from competitors, but by opening up the web to people and places that currently have no access. That’s a lot of people; there’s a lot to be done. It’s a big job. I’m a n00b and I’m gonna fuck up from time-to-time.

Bring it on.

(Yikes.)

Reading List

Reading List

Reading List