Chew on those features. We'll be coming back to them.
Let me take you back in time to a year I like to call 1996. Those were the murky days of 28.8kbps dial-up modems and "personal websites" that said "Welcome to my website! (under construction) Here's my email address." It was also the prime of Netscape Navigator, the new browser that had taken the fast expanding internet by storm and become the successor to the venerable Mosaic. Netscape was about as ubiquitous as you can imagine, for all intents and purposes it was the world wide web. Anyone privileged enough to have access to the web (chiefly in universities) had Netscape running. Microsoft (already then king of the desktop), having famously discarded the internet as a fad, had nothing to offer and Internet Explorer in 1996 was a complete joke.
This is the climate in which a little Norwegian software company decided to launch their precocious new product: a web browser. It was very much the right time for that. The web browser was by no means an established product, it was a very fresh concept. Netscape was putting in all sorts of new features and had no competition (yet). So in 1996 Opera launched their Opera web browser 2.0 and the game was on. The project was a success: a couple of years down the road a lot of people knew about Opera. And it was cool to have a Norwegian company out there in the arena - one of the most hotly contested applications even to this day, the browser.
Of course, there were hard times ahead for Netscape. Microsoft made serious progress with IE and bundling it with Windows (adding to the ongoing internet revolution where more and more home users got connected) meant that Netscape's position was threatened. Little by little it was becoming apparent that Netscape was a dinosaur next to IE, which loaded quicker, ran faster and crashed less. Netscape was not blind to this, but their counter strategy turned out to be the cyanide pill in the cocktail. They decided to scrap the existing code and start a rewrite. And thus, give or take, we never heard from Netscape again. Over the next couple of years IE pushed out the old Netscape installations (and with no new releases, IE won by default), and basically captured the whole market. This was a time when IE actually was the best product. (I know how incredible that must sound.)
Where was Opera in all of this? Catching up, it would seem. But by 2000 Opera had caught up quite nicely and Opera 4 was a very slick browser. It wasn't as complete as IE, but it looked good and both loaded and ran faster than IE5. This seems like the first time Opera was in a position to start competing with IE. It had momentum, it had speed going for it, it had new features. Hot on the heels came Opera 5, and then Opera 6 in 2001.
This is where Opera set an important precedent. With the benefit of hindsight, knowing how incredibly difficult it has been for Firefox to unseat IE, things could have been different for Opera. I recall using Opera on and off in this period. I liked the product, I liked how lightweight it was and still worked just as well, but there was just something... off about it. It didn't quite feel right. As a user of IE, I didn't feel at home in Opera. The user interface was not just different, it was too different. Then and there, I realized that Opera would not be my first choice, in spite of everything it had going for it. Purely because of the user interface.
It wasn't just me. Opera failed to build a user base. It had adoption among technology enthusiasts, but it utterly failed to break into the realm of average users. We are talking about a browser with an attractive interface, with tabbed browsing, and faster page loading. Not only that, it was more solid than just about any Microsoft application: it just did not crash. IE5, meanwhile, was on a downhill stability slope where the crashes and freezes would only get worse and worse with the proliferation of pop-ups and various nasty advertising gimmicks that the web was becoming infested with. Opera handled this so much more gracefully. But Opera was #3 (still behind Netscape) and light years behind IE in user base, without really making progress.
In 2002 Netscape returned from the dead. The rewrite everyone had long since forgotten about was released into the open, under the name Mozilla. It had little in common with the old Netscape now, the rendering engine (Gecko) was new and the user interface had been replaced (phew). Meanwhile, it was IE's turn to stagnate, IE6 was released in 2001 just before Windows XP and there ended the trail. By 2003 I felt Mozilla was so overwhelmingly superior that I wrote an advocacy text in favor of it, to wean people off the (by now) awfully backward IE. Firebird became Firefox and a year or two later the popular Firefox revolution began for real - suddenly everyone and their grandma was using Firefox.
Today IE is the dinosaur next to Firefox. The dinosaur still dominates the market, because of the unfair advantage of being pre-installed. And for the sake of completeness, grab a can of Microsoft Anti-Competitive Practices and sprinkle the whole historical period generously. But it's completely obvious that Firefox has long since won in every dimension, on technical merit, and in folklore.
Browser market share is a notoriously contested metric, but the general consensus (to the extent that there is one), is that IE remains first, then Firefox, then Safari (they basically pulled an IE on the Mac), finally Opera at #4.
With the release of KDE 4.1 on Windows and Mac (expected in July), Konqueror (which seems to be gaining ground on Linux) will be available on all platforms. If KDE adoption on Windows goes well, which I think is entirely plausible, Konqueror (now with the webkit engine) could relegate Opera to #5.
What is wrong with this picture? Let's return to the features I mentioned at the start.
Here is the big question: which browser was first to include these features? Opera. Opera. Opera. Opera. Opera. Opera. Opera. Opera. That's right, Opera prototyped all of these things. And it would actually take years before other browsers could be persuaded that these were good ideas. For heaven's sake, Firefox didn't include saving your tabs until version 2.0 in 2006! Futhermore, Opera has taken certain ideas from others and improved upon them. Firefox was first to save your passwords, but it works better in Opera.
Opera also predates every browser in common use except IE, its contemporary. And yet Opera has failed to make a real impact, why? It's not because the technology isn't good enough: Opera is still super stable and faster than anything else. Performance wise Opera completely dominates the embedded market, that should be sufficient proof. And it's not for a lack of ideas, clearly.
To put it bluntly: why did people rally around Firefox and not Opera? Is it because Firefox is technically superior? It isn't. Is it because Opera is closed source? No, I really don't believe the average user understands the distinction, or cares about it. Is it because of the extensions? It is definitely a great sales pitch, but again I don't believe that's the reason. "Power users" adore them, but does grandma really care? I sort of doubt it. Is it because Firefox is more "secure"? It isn't. Nor is it any less portable, you get the same Opera on every platform, just like Firefox. What's more, I don't think Opera has an unfair reputation on any of these points. It's just that Opera is the browser I'm going to use if this one crashes. It is "the alternative". It isn't the first choice.
Taking a stand to be different is bold, and deciding to make your application different and expect users to adapt is even more bold. It doesn't matter if your way is better. If there's one thing you absolutely have to know about software engineering, it is this: people hate change. If you are first to the party, you set your own rules. But if you're second, alas you have to play by someone else's. Opera is not competing for the theoretical masses of people who don't have a browser and are looking for one. They are ostensibly fighting to convert people from IE and Firefox.
I first heard about Opera through Norwegian media in 1999. I was excited about it and I've kept an eye on it ever since. I have made several attempts to adopt it (most recently because Firefox&adobe-flash is such an explosive combination, pun intended), but they've all failed. It is little things. How I cannot satisfactorily reproduce my Personal Bookmark Folder toolbar the way I have it set up in Firefox. Or how when I click to close a tab in Opera the tab that becomes active is not the one I want, I want the Firefox behavior. Or how I can't use extensions that I have come to expect (nowadays it is Firefox setting the standard for browsers). Or how when loading pages from slow servers they seem to get stuck loading and never time out, which doesn't give me a conclusive answer as to whether it's just slow or it can't connect. Or how when I want to configure something I can never seem to find that specific option amid a lot of other options I don't care about. Or how the caching mechanism seems to work slightly differently, so that I have to deliberately reload pages more often. Or how the fonts until very recently (before 9.50) have been scaled different and looked wrong. A dozen little things like that and it adds up to "I don't quite like this application".
When I've spoken to people about Opera I have never heard complaints about technical shortcomings. What people always say is "it's too different". And it was too different from IE when Firefox came along as it is too different from Firefox now. User interface is a very delicate problem. People's perceptions of how things are "right" or "wrong" are very subjective and entrenched, much like how in one city you feel at home and in another you don't. Opera has stayed true to their user base over the years by doing things slightly differently. I think this is also how they have taken themselves out of the running in the browser wars, despite having a highly competitive product at least since 2000.
That isn't to say they have failed. Opera Software is a thriving company and while they have 1% or less of the desktop market, they have made a successful land grab on the PDA/smartphone market with Opera Mobile, which is the same browser. While I find the proposition of putting a browser on a 200 pixel display is a horrible idea, I would pick Opera any day for that role.
Still, one could easily imagine a status quo where Opera is more of an influence. I think had they been more reluctant to redefine the browser this could have been the case. Ironically, most people will remember Firefox to have innovated the concept of tabbed browsing. Just like Apple "innovates" by recycling old ideas. By now Firefox has taken just about every good idea left from Opera and put it into a product and a form that people are more eager to use. That is to Opera's credit, and yet it is a bit sad that that Opera hasn't gotten the credit for it by attracting users.
I do actually think Opera has been converging on a lot of these little points of friction over the last couple of years, so it makes a stronger case than it used to. They have adopted some Firefox-bling that Firefox users expect to have, like an Adblock-lookalike, themes, about:config etc. Unfortunately, there is also more competition these days, from Safari (which sort of sucks, but not enough for people to rebel) and soon perhaps Konqueror.