Not Just Browsing
A software pioneer finds his little piece of Scandinavia — and a home — in Magnolia.
Not long ago the grand, aging home on Norman Avenue in the center of Magnolia was a bed and breakfast. And it was pink.
Now white, the building has a completely different — though still grand — purpose. Innovation House, as it is now known, is a place for startups to launch and Scandinavian tech wizards to convene. It’s also the US home of Vivaldi Technologies, a software development company, best known for its creation of the Vivaldi internet browser.
Silicon Valley, it is definitely not. The foyer is lined with benches featuring brightly-colored cushions. An oversized community kitchen serves group meals. Large collage boards line the hallways.
On the Innovation House front lawn, the flags of Iceland, Norway, and the US wave in the westerly winds. The striking Innovation House banner, a red and white snowflake (think Nordic sweaters) flies beside them.
The whole thing looks and feels more like a youth hostel for wandering backpackers than the US base for an international technology company with offices in Reykjavik, Oslo, and Helsinki.
. . . . .
At 6'5", Jón Stephenson von Tetzchner towers over most of the world. Yet this latter-day Viking, the cofounder and former CEO of Opera Software, and now Vivaldi Technologies, has a business philosophy that defies verticality:
“I believe in a flat structure.”
His values are what made Opera, and now Vivaldi, the beloved internet browsers of computer power users.
Once you understand what von Tetzchner, 49, believes makes a good browser — and a good company — you’ll understand why he chose Cape Ann as his home. It’s why he has created an inviting residence for vagabond startups and a retreat for the Nordic wing of the Vivaldi family right here in Magnolia.
. . . . .
A rhododendron the size of a dinosaur reveals both how old this colonial home is and that it has outgrown its once-formal setting.
A 1960s addition to the right of the Innovation House entrance houses five small residences. This feature is the kind of structure that once grew like mushrooms in beachy vacation areas — kitschy, inexpensive housing for families in need of an easy vacation.
Today, the Scandinavian wing of the Vivaldi family — the programmers and their families — fill the entire place. Von Tetzchner rallies the thirty or so Oslo Vivaldis for a month of free-flowing time together every June.
Like von Tetzchner, these Norwegians have come to consider Gloucester a home away from home.
And there’s local precedent here. At the turn of the last century, Finns and Swedes immigrated to Cape Ann to work in the fishing and granite industries. Von Tetzchner has invited a new wave of Scandinavians here — to work in tech.
Inside, the place is filled with intricately-arranged work and meeting spaces, including a designated cubicle for one eccentric Vivaldi developer who works best alone.
On a cold day in March, Terry Morse, one of the original B&B keepers von Tetzchner kept to manage the place, had just prepared lunch in the communal kitchen for the software developers that were hanging around.
“We have an organization with a lot of smart people and you don’t go around telling smart people what to do. You discuss it with them,” von Tetzchner told The Gloucester Times.
Community is everything to him.
Christian Dysthe, Vice President of Business Development and Strategy, says, “the most important thing with Jon is his employees. When Opera went public, and they fired many employees, Jon was furious. He’s the kindest man I know.”
. . . . .
Von Tetzchner started developing Opera in 1994, just three short years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee had started developing the World Wide Web. By then there were only about 300 people who had access to the internet.
Berners-Lee, who recently retired from his position as director of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), now known as the Web Science Trust, “a joint effort between MIT and University of Southampton to bridge and formalize the social and technical aspects of the World Wide Web,” holds a very special place in the hearts of von Tetzchner and Dysthe.
“This man changed the world in two ways: first he created the internet and then he demanded the internet be free, making the world and access to information a ‘flatter’ place,” says von Tetzchner.
By 1996 Opera was ready for the public. At that point the browser had already achieved cult status in many circles.
“Opera was very popular in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus,” von Tetzchner explains. “We wrote all the code ourselves with limited hardware. We believed in writing quality pieces of code, accepting that people didn’t buy new computers every year. Still, I went to Russia and asked, ‘why are we so popular here? You guys are very supportive and spreading the word about Opera. Why?’”
Among the many virtues of Opera, von Tetzchner continues, “it turns out we had great cache-handling. We were very good at not making a page reload.”
On a slow network — like in many areas of eastern Europe — that matters. Users in those countries pay by the minute for online access. A fast browser that doesn’t need to reload pages and images is a big money saver.
This large and supportive Opera community — including great numbers in Japan — were fervent. Von Tetzchner even ended up hiring some of these early users.
. . . . .
As Opera developed, its respected community of users helped shape what it would become, regularly surveying what the community wanted in a browser — and what it didn’t need. It became a nonconformist web browser that served the individual, rather than reducing its form for the lowest common denominator.
“Our approach,” von Tetzchner says, “is different in that we see every individual as unique. In the old days you heard, ‘You’re only using five percent of our computer’s functionality.’ Apple spearheaded the ‘simplification’ idea” — optimizing the computer for the most basic user.
“We don’t do that. We just take requests from our users. If you say you want it, we keep it. As an example, my father is a professor of psychology specializing in children with disabilities. I learned as a child the concept of ‘adaptation.’ My father had a patient with severe muscular disease. The only way he could use a browser was with a rod attached to his head. The keyboard commands were very important to him.”
“He was a very specialized case, but perhaps what is good for him is good for everyone,” he wondered.
Von Tetzchner says, “let’s assume there is a browser feature that interests only one percent of the user community, but if that community has 100 million users, you are taking away a favorite feature for 100,000 of them. That’s a lot!”
“We have user groups and a core group of volunteers who have access to our system. We also have volunteers to help translate. (Vivaldi is translated into more than 50 languages). Some are invited, some request to join. Questions are asked, requests are made, and there’s a forum to allow other people to vote on them. We work very closely with this community. This is not typical.”
. . . . .
Opera went public in 2004. In 2010, von Tetzchner stepped down as CEO, and, just a year later, painfully departed the company after watching the new management disregard the community he had valued so highly.
“The issue was having investors who had different ideas than mine. I was always focused on building the company — having a profitable company was a good thing. We were growing at 40 percent per year. But we had investors who were more focused on trying to sell it.”
A period of wandering followed for von Tetzchner.
“After I left Opera, I was thinking, ‘What will I do when I ‘grow up’? Where will I live? For one thing, I knew I needed some distance from what was happening at Opera. I took six months to think about it, with a few priorities.”
First, von Tetzchner wanted a place where his children (ages 20, 16, and 14) could be happy, someplace that was a good place to live, and it had to be an easy distance from Europe.
“We were looking at Cambridge, but then looked out beyond the city. We visited Magnolia in November.”
Cape Ann in November reminded him of his Scandinavian homeland.
“You have to remember where we’re from — Iceland and Norway. Being on the coast (he grew up in Seltjarnarnes, a suburb of Reykjavík, Iceland). Going down to my bus stop 30 feet from the ocean. That’s what I was used to — the real ocean!” Not a little cove, a bay, or an estuary — the Atlantic!
“Coming from Iceland, there is a principle of closeness to the sea. There is a way of thinking when you’re near the sea. Gloucester made us feel at home.
“I moved over here, and didn’t know what to do. I was trying to be an investor,” says Von Tetzchner. “I set up Innovation House for startups. And to be a beachhead for Norwegians and Icelanders. A place they can go regularly and do business in the US. Or to come for a brainstorming session. I wanted to help these startups. I was thinking, ‘when I was building Opera, what sort of support would I have liked?’ Of course, the answer is always financial, but also I would have liked a creative atmosphere and working advice.”
Dysthe, who was working in Austin, Texas, after leaving Opera, has his own version of the way von Tetzchner made the move: Von Tetzchner called Dysthe, saying, “Hi, I’m in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I’m thinking of starting a company here. Maybe you want to come up and see it?”
“I wondered if he had lost it!” Dysthe says. “I didn’t know his plans. ‘You want to work together again?’ I asked him, and Jon said, ‘you have to move here.’”
“We stayed in Jon’s house a few days, and Innovation House was born.”
. . . . .
After Iceland’s 2008 financial collapse, von Tetzchner wanted to do what he could to enable his native country’s recovery. Supporting young startups is what he knows. Today, there is a sister Innovation House right in Seltjarnarnes, his home town.
Von Tetzchner’s retirement from the browser community left a void — and the old community of Opera users began to clamor.
“I was already here for one year and then Opera went in a different direction, product-wise. The feeling was there is nobody doing what we were doing before. I was left with no choice: do it again. I started to build a browser. I hadn’t planned on this.”
“But how to build this up?” von Tetzchner wondered. “The natural place for it was Norway or Iceland,” home to von Tetzchner’s old team, and, well, just home. “Norway had all these people who I worked with before; and that was natural. But the Icelandic economy had tanked. Still, I put a team in Iceland. That was my way of helping my country.”
“The first time I did this — built a web browser — I was sitting in Norway. I’m closer to the center here,” von Tetzchner says, meaning he is literally 40 minutes away from Sir Tim Berners-Lee and MIT.
Vivaldi is an employee-owned company. Von Tetzchner wasn’t going to watch his valued team lose their jobs ever again.
. . . . .
Both von Tetzchner and Dysthe speak affectionately of Cape Ann — its beaches, its restaurants, its past, its history of iconoclasm. The only downside? “Comcast!” And the shameful absence of internet provider competition.
Nonetheless, Dysthe insists Gloucester is very similar to Iceland, and is as close to Europe as he can get in the US. “It has a flair of the Old World — the people are reserved, they respect personal space. The architecture here is 200 years old. I’ve seen this before!” Dysthe says excitedly, referring to the architecture of Oslo and his native Iceland. “Because of all of this, I relate easier.”
Von Tetzchner affirms the parallels: “The storms here are just like Iceland and the snow is like Norway.”
When he describes Vivaldi, his radical web browser — an ardent community of outspoken individuals with strong ideas — he could just as easily be describing his adopted hometown of Gloucester.
And, just like a native, his parting admonition: “don’t change it!”
Jason Grow is a Gloucester-based commercial photographer.
✹ You can download the Vivaldi browser here.