The big interview: Jon von Tzetchner talks Vivaldi

By Marc Schenker Posted Dec. 22, 2016 Reading time: 10 minutes

Vivaldi is a browser that’s an alternative to better-known browsers like Chrome, Firefox and Safari. Launched only earlier this year, it has a long way to go before it claims a fair share of the browser market, but that’s not stopping Vivaldi founder Jon von Tzetchner from telling people what’s so exciting and unique about his new project. I recently had the chance to speak to him about everything Vivaldi.

In an in-depth interview, we talk about everything from why Vivaldi is good for web designers to how many users it has and if the Internet of Things is something the company will focus on, going forward.

WebdesignerDepot: Our readers are web designers who are interested in the best or an alternative browser to help with their work and projects. How can Vivaldi benefit web designers?

Jon von Tzetchner: The special thing about Vivaldi is that we designed the browser in the browser, so the user interface of the browser is actually web-based. For all practical purposes, we’re using the same tools as any web designer is using to make webpages. The difference is that we’re making a user interface instead, so we’re using technologies like React, HTML, CSS, and the like; I mean, that’s what we’re using to build the browser. We’re also working on the C++ side of the equation, so we can do things on either side to get the best possible results, but most of the work on our side actually is being done on the HTML side.

The special thing about Vivaldi is that we designed the browser in the browser, so the user interface of the browser is actually web-based

WDD: I’d like to ask you about support for emerging technologies like CSS Grids, for instance. Does Vivaldi currently support that? If not, any plans to?

JvT: I think you just asked a question that I don’t feel comfortable with answering (laughs)—and that’s embarrassing. In general, code-wise, we’re built on Chromium. You’re asking about a standard that Chrome already supports, and we do as well. That’s the standard answer to that. Whether we’re using it in the browser in our own designs, I’m not sure about that at this time.

WDD: A CNET article from earlier this year quotes you as saying Vivaldi has almost a million users per month. Has that number grown? How many use Vivaldi as we close out 2016?

JvT: What I was saying and what I’ve been saying is that we’re well on the way toward a million. People write that in different ways, so that’s the current situation. We’re well on our way toward the first million, but we’re not totally there yet. We’ve had about 5 million downloads so far and an active user base well on its way—between 700,000 and a million is where we are.

WDD: In terms of Vivaldi expansion, what are your projections for the number of users hitting the 5-million mark, which you said was about the number need for profitability? How’s that coming along?

JvT: It’s going well. We need between 3 and 5 million users to break even, and I think that’s a reasonable goal for us to reach in the not-too-distant future. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but that’s the way it works when you’re growing the browser kind of through word of mouth. As an example of that that I’ve mentioned to people: With Opera, my last browser company, it took us 15 years to get our 100 million users, and then 18 months later, we had double that. So it’s kind of exponential growth, but we’re still early days. It’s been 6 months or thereabouts since we launched 1.0, and we continue to come up with new versions, and I think 3 to 5 million is a realistic, relatively short term target, and then we take it from there.

WDD: I’d like to talk about the uptake of Vivaldi. Are these Vivaldi users leaving other browsers permanently and moving full-time to Vivaldi?

JvT: Clearly, anyone that’s coming to Vivaldi has been using other browsers before. We don’t have any statistics that tell us what other browsers are using and things like that. We don’t really have much information, but we know that everyone that comes to Vivaldi has been using other browsers before, and then they make the decision to make the switch. We see the enthusiasm that we see on our website and our communities, and they seem to be extremely happy about the direction we’re going. That’s a very positive thing, but we don’t really have the numbers to say to what extent they’re using other browsers besides Vivaldi, but the impression is that there’s a gradual improvement in the number of people that are using it significantly.

WDD: What are the demographics like of those who are shifting to Vivaldi full-time…? Are there more people perhaps in a certain age group or part of the world who are moving to Vivaldi more than others?

We have a very high Linux usage. I think you’ll find among our users that there’s 10 times more Linux users than what you’ll find on average

JvT: We don’t track anything, and that’s one of the things that we are very…kind of…the only thing—we do know where people are in the world. The number one country for us is Japan, and number two is the U.S., and after that there is Russia and Germany. What you’re already seeing is that it’s already quite distributed, so we can’t really say that there’s one country taking it. It’s distributed, and we’re getting people all across the world. There’s one thing that we’ve seen that’s a bit different, probably: We have a very high Linux usage. I think you’ll find among our users that there’s 10 times more Linux users than what you’ll find on average. Which kind of makes sense: Linux users are more likely to download new software…given that they’ve already taken the steps to move over to a new operating system.

WDD: The latest update of Vivaldi actually lets users control the lights in their home, thanks to integration with Philips Hue color lights. This is a move toward the Internet of Things. Is this a path that Vivaldi will continue to explore and make progress toward?

JvT: Definitely. In some ways, the way this started, we described it in a blog entry—how Henrik kind of had this idea of going…bought himself this Hue, and that’s how it started. The idea of going in the direction of the Internet of Things is clearly interesting to us. I think there’s a lot of potential in the Internet of Things; I think it’s being held back in many ways by proprietary solutions. Personally, I would like to see that we go for open solutions where you find APIs, so that developers can build systems that make use of all the different units out there in a standardized manner. I think that’s something we should expect to see happening, and I think that will open up the floodgates of innovation. For us, obviously, we want to be part of that. We are geeks. We love playing with new technology, and, clearly, the Internet of Things is one of those technologies that 1) is very early days in many ways compared to what you can expect to happen, and 2) it’s just very interesting technology.

WDD: Do you have any ideas of maybe moving to integration with vehicles or other parts of the home, besides just lighting?

JvT: We start in one corner. I think the primary purpose in the short term is to be running toward home items. I think that’s natural.

WDD: As we’re ending the year, we want to get your thoughts on what Vivaldi wants to do in 2017. For example, do you have any plans for 2017, a vision for where you want to take the browser next year?

JvT: I mean, we want to continue to evolve the browser and stretch the limit of what you can expect from the browser. We’re playing around with that a little bit, and there are a lot of details, right?

You see that in some of the latest builds that we’ve been sending out. We have a build where we look outside of the machine—kind of. We change the color of your lights in your home based on your browsing, so this is thinking kind of outside the box. At the same time, we’re also paying attention to details.

In a late build now, there’s a lot of people that like the fact that we’re now showing how many “unreads” you have on sites. So, if you have Facebook up on a tab, we’ll have a clear indicator that indicates how many unread notes you have there, and you can do that even if it’s pages. And that’s the kind of detail that a lot of people get excited about, so we’ll continue in that direction—just focusing on what people want.

Then we have some of the bigger things, which are things like email, which we promised. We’re working on a mobile browser…sync, but what exactly we’ll come up with during the year…it’s really hard to say because, the way we work, we just do things.

WDD: So it seems to me that you listen to your community of users quite a bit, and I guess that informs the process of what new features you want to add into Vivaldi. Is there anything that your user community at this moment is asking for the most…some kind of a theme or pattern that they have always talked about and that they would want to see, perhaps, in Vivaldi in the future?

JvT: Very high on the list for our users have been things like email and sync, so that’s getting the sync functionality in, so that it’s very clearly there. We get a lot of requests from the users, and think most of the requests we get from the users are evolution, and then we try to think out of the box every now and then.

WDD: I’d like to switch gears a little bit to features. What would you say is Vivaldi’s biggest selling point? If there’s one feature that makes Vivaldi better than other browsers, what would that be?

JvT: Well, I think the biggest selling point is that it’s personal. I mean, all the other browsers they just say, “Okay. Here’s a browser—use it.” There’s not much more to it! We adapt to you as a user, and that’s unique. There’s a lot of details to that. There’s a lot of functions to that and saying that one is more important than another—in some ways, you could say that it’s our tab handling, it’s our callers, it’s our zoom handling, keyboard shortcuts. I mean there’s a lot of different things.

The core to all of this—how we’re different—is we see every user as being different, and we see their requirements, and their requirements differ. It’s our job to adapt to your requirements, so whatever your requirements are. Some people—latest one—signal a starting point, like with the speed dials. Others, they have a lot of tabs, and the tab handling becomes extremely important, so there’s really an individual answer to that question.

We’re not a single-feature browser. Our approach is singular. It’s really about every single user and acknowledging that we’re all different. We all have different requirements, and they’re all equally valuable.

That was something that we really didn’t want to be: a single-feature browser. We’re not a single-feature browser. Our approach is singular. It’s really about every single user and acknowledging that we’re all different. We all have different requirements, and they’re all equally valuable.

WDD: Vivaldi’s big draw for our web-design community is that it’s very friendly for designers and developers, but is it geared specifically to that community, or would you say that even just ordinary users could get a lot out of Vivaldi as well?

JvT: I frankly believe—I mean—in many ways, Vivaldi is the best for everyone. The kind of people that find Vivaldi is the people that are spending more time online. That’s definitely the development community. They like the fact that they can play around and change settings and things like that, but that’s also the group of people that tells others what to do. It’s the influencers, and we’re seeing that.

You install it first on your computer, and the next thing that happens is that you install it on your parents’ computer and your brother’s and sister’s and friends’ and all those that are asking for your advice because you’re the person in the know. It’s just like all of us: We have friends that have certain—maybe we have a friend that’s a car mechanic. We go to him, that person, whenever we have a question around cars, but similarly with technology, we’ll ask the people that are in the know and that spend time, and that’s the kind of users we are attracting, and then they go and tell their friends.

WDD: It seems that there’s a big word-of-mouth component to Vivaldi in the sense of trying to get more people to hear about it, to get it advertised. To that extent, I just want to ask if you think there’s one big thing—like one big piece of media coverage maybe or one big announcement—you think that Vivaldi needs in order to kind of put it on the map more, so that it goes beyond the designer or the developer community?

JvT: We’ve been gradually getting a bigger and bigger reach, but obviously the more media coverage, in some ways, the more often it is. The way this works: We get to a certain group of people, and once you have one guy in the group, and that influences the others. Once you have two or three, the group may all turn and start using us because it’s kind of more and more people are seeing what other people are seeing. Obviously, the bigger stakes, the better it is for us, but we see this as a process that we gradually reach out to people.

I think we already have quite a lot of very high-profile articles. If you look both in the tech community…also some of the larger magazines have covered us. I mean, Guardian in the UK, Boston Globe here…and others, so we’re seeing more and more magazines that think it’s a worthwhile story to cover, but obviously it’s only one article, and we over time need more articles to reach. It’s a process, and it’s a process we saw at Opera as well where we would have growth every year and gradually that got us to the number—we said 350 million (reference to Opera users).

WDD: I want to say thank you for your time, Jon!

JvT: Thank you. I will keep you posted.

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