I’m not an Opera user, but I’ve always found the notion of a small company trying to make money selling web browsers in a world filled with free Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari fascinating, even if it’s only a train-wreck sort of fascination. That model didn’t work very well for Netscape, and I didn’t really expect it to work for Opera, but they’ve kept hanging in there, putting out new releases year after year. Still, I figured they’d run out of money sooner or later and then the number of browsers in the world would shrink by one.

Earlier this week, I was surprised when they announced that they were going to start giving away their web browser, rather then charging $40 per copy. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention, but assumed that either the end was probably near and they were making some last-ditch attempt to gain users.

It looks like I was wrong; I completely missed their primary revenue stream. According to Om, Opera makes most of their money from search engines. They gets a kickback whenever you search for something using their browser and click on an advertising link; since AdSense users can get a cut of search revenue, I don’t know why it never occurred to me that browser companies could make money the same way.

The Mozilla Foundation apparently brings in $30 million per year this way; that’s not bad for a free product. Apparently they found the fabled “step 2”.