Five observations from Opera Software’s Up North Web conference

by Brad Spirrison

Opera Software this week unveiled state-of-the art browser technology that will have a significant impact on the app ecosystem. The Oslo Norway-based company hosted nearly 150 journalists and analysts during the 2011 Up North Web conference. Founded in 1995 as a spin-off of Telenor, the sixth largest cellular carrier in the world, Opera is the little engine that could competing against the likes of (IE, Mozilla and Chrome).

Last week, we introduced you to Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie. Wium Lie, one of the inventors of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) more than a decade ago, unveiled the Opera Mini Web Browser 6.5 update and the Opera Mobile Web Browser 11.5 update. In addition to being accessible on Android-based smartphones and tablet devices, the Opera Browsers are also available as desktop applications.

Here are five things you should know about the new updates, as well as Opera’s efforts to bring app-based functionality to browsers at large.

1) Browsers are behaving a lot more like apps

While the Opera Mobile browsers are available as Android applications, the bigger significance of the most recent updates has to do with how they incorporate properties of mobile applications. Information consumers from around the world are increasingly expecting nimble and gesture-based functions found in mobile apps. Browsers, particularly those that are native to mobile and desktop devices, need to adopt to this quickly-transforming user behavior.

The most impressive innovation Wium Lie and his colleagues showcased at Up North Web — at least from an app enthusiast’s perspective — was a proposal to deliver a new standard to web pages that will make them display more like printed pages in a book or magazine. A demonstration of the New York Times website on a tablet showed a three-column layout with the graphic situated at the upper-right of the screen in both landscape and portrait mode.

There is also a significant commercial component to a paper-based layout.

“We think there is an opportunity to rethink the ads and user-interface,” Wium Lie said.

If this proposal is eventually approved and the standard is embraced, publishers will be able to display content in more app-like formats on any device without giving away a cut of the advertising revenue back to the platform operator.

2) Developers will embrace HTML5 (sooner rather than later)

For more than a year we’ve been told about the upcoming revolution in HTML5-supported games and content vehicles. This browser-based technology is already attracting major developers. Angry Birds developer Rovio will be one of the household names to lead the way. “Our strategy is to be on all screens,” said Saara Bergstrom, head of consumer engagement and social marketing for Rovio. “It is a perfect fit (for us) to be involved with Opera. Web development is becoming more important for us. The Audience can be really different.”

While Rovio can succeed on any platform and device, smaller developers are increasingly paying attention and sharing best practices like at the upcoming NEW GAME 2011 conference in San Francisco.

In terms of distribution, Opera alone is active on more than 140 million mobile devices and generates more than 80 billion pageviews each month.

3) Search and discovery becomes an even bigger problem

Yet as distribution opportunities extend to HTML 5, the discoverability problem will only get hairier. App developers are already struggling to get their titles noticed by prospective consumers. While search on the web is more mature than search for mobile applications, there is no mechanism in place for consumers to search specifically for HTML5 applications. Once you get beyond the CNNs and the Angry Birds of the world that will be prominently showcased, it’s unclear how titles on even the medium end of the tail will be surfaced.

4) TV apps are coming

While I saw many examples of television-based apps earlier this year at the Computer Electronics Show, nothing had the impact of watching an Opera-powered TV in action. Opera has deals with four out of the seven top television manufacturers in the world. More than 20 percent of flat screen TVs are already Internet-enabled. Opera’s HTML5 video tagging capabilities and the fact that game developers are already embracing the platform means that the software will soon catch up with the hardware, and consumers will finally and forever change how they interact with the boob tube.

5) Those Norwegians sure can party

When you are based in a remote part of the world that shares the same latitude as Iceland, it’s hard to generate the same amount of attention as the Microsofts, Mozillas and Googles of the world. Opera’s software is state-of-the-art and ideally suited for mobile devices. The company’s biggest problem is the fact that not enough people know about it.

Flying scores of journalists in for an immersive product preview and corporate culture showcase is a good way to remedy that. The beer-drenched meal at Cafe Christiania should provide for a better return on investment than any staid media campaign.

Opera, which is extremely diverse in both personnel and mindset, is a company that will have a profound impact on mobile media in the years and decades to come.