The web has the power, reach and usability of apps: Opera's Bruce Lawson

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 09, 2016

Web warrior "The power of the web is its instantaneous nature" PRISCA SCHMARSOW

The open web can now pose a challenge to the supremacy of native apps on mobile, says Opera's Bruce Lawson

With the Internet increasingly being dominated by apps, it is a tough time to be a browser company. But Bruce Lawson, the Chief Technology Officer of Norwegian firm Opera Software strongly believes that the open web – and by extension, the browser – is poised for a comeback.

Opera is heavily focused on mobile – a platform where there is a clear trend away from browsers and towards app-based content delivery. As a browser company, how does Opera intend to counter that?

If you’re on a browser that supports this new technology called progressive web apps, the web can now become an app. When a user goes to the website in a browser that supports this, you can add the site to your home screen. When you tap on the icon, it’ll go full screen and behave just like an app. There’s also a new technology called ServiceWorker that allows websites to work offline. So the experience is indistinguishable from a native app.

And apps are not doing nearly as well as you’d think. Flipkart recently closed their mobile website and went app-only. Now they’ve relaunched their mobile website. The reason they’ve gone down this route is because they know that a lot of devices don’t have a great deal of storage. They also wanted something that would work equally well on every phone on some of the flakiest networks in India.

Native apps live on your phone and also eat a lot of RAM. Progressive web apps live on the web. So if you make a change on your server, the next person to click the icon sees the new version. The web’s now got the power, the reach and the usability of apps. We think this is a game changer because users don’t really care where the information is coming from – the device or the web. It just works.

Web apps have failed before in the case of the iPhone and more recently with FirefoxOS. What makes you think they will work this time around?

The reason a lot of these efforts didn’t work is because you had these things that looked like native apps but they couldn’t do what native apps could because we hadn’t added features like access to the camera, ability to synthesize sound, etc.

This version of web apps combines the user experience of apps with the strengths of the web. And the game changer is ServiceWorker.

Where do you think the line is going to emerge that divides functions between native apps and progressive web apps?

There’ll always be proprietary features in devices that only native apps will be able to access. In those instances, that native app is going to be better. For everything else, it becomes a consumer choice between web and native apps. With progressive web apps, we’ve done our best to narrow the gap in user experience. So that will shift that line in favour of the web.

What are Opera’s plans with respect to the Indian market?

On Republic Day this year, we updated Opera Mini with 13 Indian languages. A majority of Indian people don’t read English. So the challenge is to get people using the Internet in their own language. There’s not much actual web content in local languages, but that’s predicted to rise in the coming years. We also recently launched Opera Max 1.5, which compresses all data by about 50 per cent, and video by 60 per cent. With the new release, we changed the backend so that it automatically encrypts all data going in and out of your device. Security is something that people are increasingly concerned about, but it’s hard for end users to understand what is secure and what isn’t. So for me, installing Opera Max is a simple solution. India is our biggest market and there’s huge growth potential. Only 9 per cent of rural Indians are connected to the web. The number’s grown a lot, but we still need to give the other 91 per cent a chance at connecting to the Internet.

Opera compresses images and videos, but a lot of data is used up on ads – content that people don’t even want. What is your stance on ad-blocking?

I dispute the idea that ads are content that you don’t want. Some ads are terrible. The challenge is to enable people to block the terrible stuff while keeping the good ads. And that’s why I say we’re looking at it rather than announcing that we’ll block every ad. Before I joined Opera, I ran a successful blog that had ads on it. These ads helped me pay my server fees. It’s not like my blog was the best one in the world, but it would be terrible if independently produced content was silenced because those people couldn’t raise the revenue to keep their sites going. If content was only possible through big publishers, the web would lose and ultimately the consumer would lose.

In order to compress all that data, it has to pass through Opera’s servers first. What would you say to users who are concerned about the privacy implications of this?

There is an element of trust involved in every product you use and browsers are the same. We have strict rules when it comes to handling user data. But if you don’t trust us, don’t use it.

Published on March 09, 2016

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