Can Opera Raise its Market Share?

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I’m always hesitant about writing Opera articles. The browser has a passionate and vocal community and you never encounter such heated debate when discussing its competitors.

If I berate a feature, I’ll be told that Opera’s implementation is the best. If I commend Opera, I’ll be informed that I haven’t given it enough praise. In either case, it’s made obvious that I’m too dumb to appreciate the browser.

Opera’s market share is the most controversial issue and a flame war will erupt the moment I mention the magical 2%. The most fanatical users will claim various conspiracies, inaccuracies, and fallacies. So, here goes…

According to most web statistics, the desktop edition of Opera has the lowest market share of the five top browsers. It hovers at around 2% and has barely moved since it was launched over a decade ago.

That’s not to say Opera’s user base isn’t growing. As web usage increases, so does the total number of installations and the company reports 140 million users worldwide (the total for all mobile and desktop editions). However, it’s not experiencing accelerated growth like Chrome. Google’s market share is growing proportionally faster than general internet growth.

In addition, Opera is by far the most widely-installed mobile browser. The mobile editions of IE, Safari and Firefox pale into insignificance because they all require powerful smart phones. Opera Mini and Mobile can be installed on more humble devices and are the default browsers for millions of phones. That said, I expect iPhone 3G users browse the web more often than a typical Opera user.

What’s Opera’s killer feature?

But let’s return to the desktop edition. What is Opera’s killer feature?

IE is a corporate workhorse or novice browser. Chrome is known for speed and stability. Firefox’s reputation was gained from functionality and extensibility for power users. Safari is the obvious choice for those wanting the Apple experience.

Opera is good all-round browser but doesn’t excel in a particular area. It’s difficult to identify the target audience and summarize the browser’s position in the market. There are varied reasons for it’s sedate uptake, but there are few compelling reasons to recommend Opera when alternatives offer an easier, faster or more customizable experience (even if they fall behind in other respects).

If you want speed, use Chrome (or perhaps IE9). If you want functionality, use Firefox with add-ons. Opera may be fast and flexible, but it doesn’t beat the competition. Some users want a browser that’s a jack-of-all-trades, but I’m convinced many more want the best option for whatever interests them.

Opera fans may argue their browser is innovative. I agree — the company has introduced many of the features we now take for granted. However, we’ve reached a point where most of the newer options have niche appeal. Turbo mode and Unite are great ideas but how many people understand or want them?

Opera’s tablet cure

Tablet PCs have been around for many years but the devices have become increasing popular following Apple’s success with the iPad. Clones will flood the market during the next 12 months offering a variety of features, form factors and OSs. They’re likely to overtake netbooks and may threaten the laptop and smart phone markets.

Opera has an incredible opportunity to produce the definitive browser for tablet PCs:

  • it’s available on most platforms including Windows, OS X, Linux, Symbian and iOS
  • it has built-in email, chat, note-taking and widgets
  • it’s fast and Opera 11 offers extensions
  • the browser is already optimized for small-screen devices
  • it has low power, processing and memory requirements
  • mouse gestures could be adapted for touch control

The only stumbling block is that all tablets will offer capable browsers. However, Opera has a good chance of success if they seek licensing deals or can prove their browser is a better option.

Perhaps tablets could be Opera’s savior? If users try Opera on a tablet, it’s less of a psychological leap to install it on their PC.

I’m yet to be convinced that Opera can break above its market share barrier, but tablets could be its route to stardom.

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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