jonvontetzchnerJon von Tetzchner (pronounced “Yon,” not “John”) co-founded Opera in 1995 after developing a small, fast browser for Norway’s national phone company. The original version needed to fit on a 1.2 megabyte floppy disk and run fast on old PCs too slow for the two browser giants of the time, Internet Explorer 4 and Netscape Communicator.

Fourteen years later, von Tetzchner has carved out a small but solid niche for Opera. The company’s browsers ship pre-installed on more than 200 mobile phone models and cover more than 20 operating systems including the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS and ASUS Eee Top PC, all of which ship with Opera as the built-in browser. Von Tetzchner says that by some estimates, Opera is the most-used mobile browser in the world. (Wikipedia has an unsourced figure of 40 million shipped phones with Opera built in.)

But Opera isn’t making Google-sized money. Its first-quarter sales and revenue-sharing deals with mobile carriers, search engines and other sites, added up to just over $27 million in revenue. That’s an impressive 59 percent jump over Q1 2008, at a time when most tech firms were bleeding money. But it’s a lot less than the average Valley CEO would hope to be reporting after 14 years in business.

Opera seems perpetually stuck at around 3 percent global market share for browsers, and very little of that comes from Americans. Von Tetzchner’s earnest new product, Opera Unite, which lets users turn their personal computers into globally accessible content servers, has inspired only a small number of devotees.

I prodded von Tetzchner about his company’s continued solid-but-small status over lunch in San Francisco today. “What Apple has done is very sexy,” he said, “but you have to keep in mind that iPhones are only two percent of the total number of phones” sold or given away by worldwide carriers. “That leaves 98 percent of the world’s phones not tied to Safari.”

Opera is another company like INQ or GetJar that’s well-known outside the U.S. but unknown to Americans. “People often quote our U.S. market share as if it is the global figure,” von Tetzchner said. “Our global market share is just over three percent. That is comparable to Safari and Chrome.”

In the U.S. market, Opera still has lots of room for growth in two major markets: Desktop and laptop PCs, and mobile phones. Von Tetzchner has been thus far unable to sell major PC and mobile makers on making Opera their default browser as he did Nintendo.

Now seems like a good time to try again. The past few months have proven that alternative browsers — Safari and Chrome — can draw enthusiastic user bases through downloads rather than pre-installation. And the rise of app stores seems to be making users more demanding for quality applications that aren’t sloppy and slow. Opera has that in spades — I use it on my BlackBerry.

But as troubled startup Skyfire has learned, a cutting-edge, well-built browser that plays to the new world of social networks and viral videos won’t automatically be snapped up by gadget makers. [Update: We’ve just heard from the Skyfire, and “troubled” may be too strong as a descriptor. The company says it is the fastest growing downloadable browser in the U.S, and that its investors are happy. Our point is more that, without absolute massive distribution, its business model remains unclear.]

Opera has hung in there for nearly 15 years. To get to the next level, they need a new round of buzz. What’s not clear is where that’s going to come from.

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