In 1995, Opera launched in Norway, developing one of the first Web browsers for desktop computers. Back then, it aimed to compete with Microsoft and Netscape. Eventually, its goal became to build a browser that would work on any phone, says executive vice president Mahi de Silva.
Nearly 20 years later, the company still helps businesses with cloud-based browsing. But as times have changed, so, too, has Opera, which now runs the world's fifth-largest app store.
With more than 250 million monthly users relying on Opera's browser worldwide, says de Silva, expanding into apps was a given. "What we found out in 2012 was that consumers were shifting," he says. "They weren't just browsing; they wanted to use applications." So Opera set out to "invest in services that consumers were looking for," which meant Bollywood, cricket games, and daily prayer apps in India, open communication apps such as Skype in Russia, and all things sports in Latin America.
"What we try to do is not create a single store that services the entire world," de Silva says of the Opera Mobile Store, which reached 105 million monthly visitors and sold 200,000 titles in the fourth quarter of 2013. "We try to tune it to their geography." By ensuring each country's version of the store appears in the customer's language and takes his or her local currency, Opera has established a niche in a market that has largely been ignored by higher-profile app stores.
"Apple still services the [developed] markets," says de Silva. "You're not seeing Urdu [in their store]. Ours is rendered in 64 languages."
It's a lesson in the importance of cultivating a lesser-known market. Another case in point: The company sells apps for other platforms besides Apple iOS and Android. Users of Java, Symbian, and BlackBerry can all find apps in the Opera Mobile Store.
Matching customers' interests to what's on offer while forging strong relationships with developers has also helped nurture Opera's fan base. The company works closely with developers to assess what's driving downloads and uses that information to inform which apps are featured in the store. "Having that complete meritocracy driven by consumer interest drives a lot of activity," de Silva says.
Of course, popularity isn't the only thing that can catapult an app to the hot list. User engagement is telling, too, says de Silva: "Do people download it and let it sit dormant, or do they interact with the application?"
Although Opera's app store doesn't get a lot of traffic from the U.S., de Silva firmly believes that reaching out to developing countries is a smarter business strategy overall. "There are just these huge untapped audiences for apps," he says, noting Indonesia alone has around 250 million people. "It's just driving a very different behavior than what we see in the [developed] world."
If that means Asphalt Moto, a 3D racing game, gets more love than Flappy Birds, so be it.