Meet the Programmer Behind a Car Browser Elon Musk Might Actually Like

Jon von Tetzchner’s Vivaldi has made its way onto the screens of Polestar and Mercedes models.

(Bloomberg) — For all of Tesla Inc.’s groundbreaking work advancing digital features in cars, it’s still lacking one thing: a decent browser.

While the EV maker pioneered over-the-air software updates and equipped its cars with massive touchscreens before rivals, its proprietary in-car browser “sucks,” Elon Musk told a Tesla owners’ club last year. “It’s worse than, like, some iPad from five years ago,” he said. “Like, by a lot.”

A European company has developed what it says is among the best alternatives: a browser called Vivaldi running on Google’s Android Automotive operating system. Manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Volkswagen’s Audi are using it in their models. The browser supports multiple tabs, video conferencing and gaming, setting it apart from more basic offerings like Tesla’s.

Maybe Vivaldi’s most interesting feature is its ad-blocking and tracking protection. While automakers and technology companies have been embroiled in a struggle to control drivers’ in-car experiences, Vivaldi Technologies CEO Jon von Tetzchner is adamant that his product is built with privacy in mind.

In an interview in Berlin, von Tetzchner, who also co-developed the Opera mobile-phone browser, flagged tech giants’ data collection as a major security problem. He spoke about the future of in-car software and explained why he wants to keep his company private.

Here are highlights from the conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity:

How did you get started providing browsers for cars?

A lot of the team at Vivaldi was at Opera before, where we were delivering for all kinds of devices — phones, gaming consoles like Nintendo, and even cars. After Polestar launched the Polestar 2, the CEO wanted to give a browser as a Christmas present to the community. We provided the browser in a few months. And since then, we’ve been contacted by everyone else. We’ve also just launched with Mercedes, and there’s a number of others we’re working on which haven’t been announced yet.

Are carmakers working on their own browsers, or will they rely on others?

I see somewhat of a middle ground. Most of them use Google as the underlying technology, but it’s not necessarily Google all the way. Even with Polestar, which uses Google’s app store, they’re still adding software like ours into the mix, because what Google is offering is not enough. Over time, there will be more, but it’s still early days. The browser gives you basically everything — you could be watching most of the video and streaming services, you can play online games.

Just after we launched, Elon Musk had a rant about Tesla’s browser and how bad it was, and I think he’s correct. They’re using Chromium, just like we’re doing, but user interface-wise, it’s very bare. The last time I looked, it just had one tab.

In our case, you can have multiple tabs. We have a tracker blocker and ad blocker and a lot of other functionality, out of the box. People will be using our browser in a very profitable, professional way. Mercedes has focused on things like having meetings, and a car is brilliant for that. It provides you with a great sound experience, and if you have a built-in camera, then you can do video conferencing. You can connect a keyboard and basically get a full workstation in your car.

What about Asia’s carmakers? The likes of  BYD or Nio are considered to provide a good in-car digital experience geared to local tastes.

There’s an opportunity for us in all of this, and obviously, we’re getting interest from Asia as well. Building a browser isn’t trivial — it’s something the mobile-phone industry learned also. Much of it is about getting a lot of feedback, and we get that from our users. Browsers get updated all the time and that’s a lot of work.

Do you see any particular difference in how people use a browser in a car as opposed to on their phone or PC?

We are a very private company from that perspective. We can see what people are commenting in the public forums. A lot of them obviously are focusing on video playback, and then it’s just browsing. I think it’s natural if you’re sitting still that, in a number of cases, you would be utilizing something that’s more recreational. So that’s the impression we get, but we don’t have any data. We don’t collect any data and we avoid that at all costs.

How’s the competitive landscape looking like?

We decided to go in quickly and decisively, and the others didn’t. We’re basically still by ourselves. We know Google will eventually get there — we’re surprised it’s taking them this long. Mozilla, I would expect them to be there as well.

Google could come and say, ‘Hey, we want to buy your company.’

That’s happened with my old company. I didn’t like where Opera went after I quit. And the disagreement between me and the investors was that I wanted to grow the company, and they wanted to sell it. So we don’t want that to happen again. We’re basically employee-owned. I do have the most of the shares, but everyone in the company has shares. And we’ve explicitly said we’re not going public. We plan to be continuing to be self-funded.

Whenever you get someone in, you have get to get them out, as well — go public or provide an exit. We would prefer to be able to focus on providing the best possible product for our users. I just don’t want to be in a situation where someone says, why don’t you use some of that data that might be accessible to you? That’s something we believe companies shouldn’t do. We’re not in the business of selling data, we’re in the business of trying to keep our users safe.

Do you feel regulators in Europe are paying enough attention to data collection?

There is no reason why companies should have the right to profile us — the unnecessary collection of data should be banned. There’s a lot of cases where companies have reasons to have data, and then it’s just a question of what you should and shouldn’t do with it. There’s a significant problem how data is being used today, with regard to the ad market that changed dramatically with the surveillance-based model, and also the algorithms that are being used to decide our content are highly problematic. I think this needs to be regulated.

Not tapping outside investors — will that impede your growth?

We’ll take the time it takes to grow. It’s what we did at Opera. There, it took us five years to get investors in and another four years to go public. But at the same time, we grew Opera to be big, we dominated mobile. Opera today is larger than Mozilla in the number of users reported. So we’ll do things in our own time, and we want to stay in control.

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