The news that Norway’s Opera Software accepted a $1.2 billion buyout offer doesn’t have everyone popping champagne corks.
At first glance, it seems nothing short of miraculous that the company, founded in 1995 during Netscape’s heyday, hung on long enough to see a sizable exit. But the deal also comes just as Opera had finally hit its stride in recent years, and executives were starting to dream about achieving the status of global tech powerhouse that had eluded them for so long.
Sitting in a conference room recently at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Opera CEO Lars Boilesen hinted at his disappointment that his team might not get a chance to see whether it could, at last, fulfill its potential on its own.
“We were fine being independent,” Boilesen said. “The fact that the board wanted to start a strategic process was a decision by the board.”
Of course, executives aren’t actively opposing the deal either. But in a conversation with Boilesen and Opera chief technology officer Håkon Wium Lie, the executives noted (several times in our interview) that it must still win shareholder approval and likely won’t close for several months. After Opera’s board announced last fall it would begin a formal process for evaluating offers it was starting to receive, it fell to the executive team to vet these offers and determine which — if any — might be a strategic fit.
And in that regard, Boilesen and his team agree that there are potential benefits to the acquisition by China-based firms Kunlun Tech, which makes mobile games, and Qihoo 360, which makes antivirus and search software. The companies see Opera’s browser, which is very popular in several Asian markets, as a platform to expand the reach of their products into places like India and create an ecosystem for users, much like Apple has done with Safari and Google with Chrome.
The Chinese companies bring tremendous resources and access to even more Asian markets that could accelerate Opera’s growth in the short term. And by no longer being a publicly traded company, Opera won’t face the same pressures to deliver quarterly profits, letting it invest in expansion to pursue its goal of being a truly global company.
“We have to crack the western world,” Boilesen said. “And that can be a bit hard if you have to deliver profits every quarter. You have to invest in technology and new features.”
Whether or not the deal is officially consummated, the fact that Opera, a company founded in the Internet’s paleolithic era, has reached this point means they have beaten some fairly long odds. Even web browser pioneer Netscape, which so famously went public the same year Opera was founded, didn’t last more than a few years before being crushed by Microsoft.
Opera was spun out of Norway’s main telecom company, Telenor, and released its first web browser in 1997. But Microsoft’s move to integrate its own web browser, Explorer, into Windows 95, devastated Netscape and also made it hard for Opera to get global traction on the desktop.
But Opera managed to gain an advantage briefly when it started working early on a mobile version of the browser. Released in 2000, for several years it was a popular choice for the growing range of mobile devices with Internet connections in the pre-smartphone era.
The arrival of the iPhone and then Android seemed like it had sealed Opera’s fate, creating a new category of phones that were mainly dominated by Apple’s Safari browser and Google’s Chrome browser.
Opera’s saving grace came in an unlikely deal the company made in 2010. Opera bought AdMarvel, a mobile advertising product, for $8 million. The company used that to launch its Opera Mediaworks in 2013, a mobile advertising platform that included a video component.
According to its financials for the fourth quarter of 2015, the company overall reported $193.5 million in revenue, up 25 percent from the previous year. Of that total revenue, mobile advertising products accounted for $145.4 million. And within ad revenue, mobile video ads were 60 percent.
“It was a small acquisition,” said Boilesen. “We were lucky to find it. And as result, we became the mobile advertising alternative to Google.”
Meanwhile, Opera’s browser market share had dropped to 5.5 percent, placing it sixth in the world, according to metrics firm StatCounter. (Chrome, Safari, Explorer, Firefox, and Alibaba’s UCWeb are all ahead.) But Opera remains strong in emerging markets, likely in part due to the fact that its compression technology helps it run faster on low-performance phones.
“We gave people the ability to get online in places where they are mobile first,” Boilesen said. “Through the Opera Mini browser, we could compress data and a browser on a feature phone. It became known as a cheap way to access the Internet.”
Indeed, according to StatCounter, Opera is the number one browser in Africa, fourth in Indonesia, third in Russia and India. However, in the U.S. and Europe, Opera has fallen off the radar.
“I cannot convince my neighbor in Norway to use Opera,” said Håkon Wium Lie, Opera’s chief technology officer. “But it’s very easy to convince 1,000 students in Indonesia.”
But with a sounder financial footing, the company has been reinvesting in the browser. And it has begun studying ways to get back into those western markets.
“We should be serving more than our share in U.S,” Lie said. “We’re not going to stop. We’re adding things to the desktop browser. We have had the web product for 20 years. It’s a vital part of the infrastructure of using the Internet for people. We need to make it a vital tool that has some features that are not currently there.”
As part of that strategy, the company this month announced the release of the developer’s version of the desktop browser with new ad-blocking technology built in. The company claims that by having the ad-blocking technology built into the browser’s code, the load time for web pages increases on average by 40 percent compared to third-party ad-blocking extensions.
The ad-blocking technology is just one example of how over the past year the company had begun aggressively investing in enhancing the browser. But while work on these new features was underway, the success of its mobile advertising business started getting Opera noticed. And offers started coming in from interested buyers.
With Internet traffic and video continuing to shift to mobile devices, having a red-hot mobile video advertising product suddenly became very attractive.
“Personally, I’m not very surprised,” Boilesen said. “We have experienced growth in our user base. And people started circling.”
It seems very unlikely that shareholders will turn down the offer, which represents a 50 percent premium over the value of Opera’s stock on the day it was announced.
But executives take comfort in the fact that the potential new owners have said Opera would continue to operate with a degree of independence. And for now, they’re trying to focus on the deal’s upside.
“We have the products,” Boilesen said. “We’re just looking for owners who can take us to another level. If the deal comes through, we hope it will help us move faster.”