Opera is Facebook's best browser play

Reports peg No. 5 browser maker as takeover target

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Opera's not-quite-a-browser has been in the App Store for more than two years, and is also available for Android, Symbian-powered phones and BlackBerry. Opera has not created a version of Mini for Microsoft's Windows Phone, or committed to developing a Metro app for the upcoming Windows 8 or Windows RT, however.

On Android, Opera Mini faces competition from, naturally, Google. While Google lets rivals Opera and Firefox distribute through the Google Play e-market, the search giant has made it clear that its plan is to replace the stodgy and slow Android browser with the more-capable, faster Chrome as the default on Android smartphones.

Opera Mini would let Facebook present the social network in a more browser-like interface than the Facebook app on iOS. Spooked by the relative paucity of ads on its mobile apps, Facebook may see Opera Mini as a way to show the traditional display ads that have been its primary money maker.

Facebook's app has also been bashed for being slow, another reason Opera Mini could be a good fit for the firm. Opera boasts that its servers compress Web page data by as much as 90%, resulting in faster delivery to the device, especially on slower connections.

Opera's infrastructure might be overwhelmed by Facebook's traffic, but the company has been beefing up its servers, according to its most recent financial statements. In the first quarter, Opera spent $2 million on infrastructure, a 66% increase over the same quarter the year before.

Other parts of Opera would also be attractive to a buyer like Facebook, including Opera's three mobile ad networks -- two acquired last February -- the company's new payment processing technology, dubbed "Opera Payment Exchange;" and its existing relationships with scores of carriers and handset makers.

And Opera's revenues are on an upswing.

First quarter revenue was $47 million, up 28% from the same period in 2011, with the biggest share -- nearly $17 million, or 36% of the total -- coming from the search deals Opera has with Google, Yandex in Russia, and Baidu in China for its desktop browser. Like rival Mozilla's Firefox, Opera generates most of its search income from Google.

Search deals for Opera Mini -- again, Google and Yandex -- brought in another $3 million, while the company's ad networks contributed nearly $7 million, a 303% increase.

Facebook's interest in Opera may be only speculation, but the company's pursuit of a browser has been discussed for much longer, usually with the expectation of the company building its own from scratch. In 2008, for example, Facebook hired Mike Schroepfer, then Mozilla's vice president of engineering, a driving force behind Firefox, to take the same title at the social network.

Buying Opera could be the quickest, and really only, shortcut.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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