Spoutin' Off: Opera making headway as a player in the Web browser game

By Michael Rau

October 3 2005

There's a new player in Web browsers - It's called Opera.

OK, pal; back away from your keyboard! I didn't say Opera was a new browser - just a new player in the game. We'll get to why in a minute.

In fact, Opera is the oldest continuously developed browser in existence, younger only than the granddaddy of all browsers, NCSA Mosaic.

Two Norwegian guys started developing Opera in 1993 in response to what they perceived as a lack of dimension in the Mosaic browser. While Mosaic was morphing into Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer, Opera went off in a different direction, becoming a rock-solid application with a fiercely loyal, if minuscule fan base.

The problem with Opera has always been its cost. Even after the so-called browser wars ended with the two major players distributing their products for free, the folks at Opera stubbornly refused to join the parade. Perhaps arrogantly, they deemed that they had a superior product and thus, users should be willing to pay a premium for a better browser.

Wrong! The average consumer could never understand why Opera's extra features were worth 30 bucks. In response, Opera released an ad-supported version, but the placement of the ads and the ad content were just annoying, so it never caught on either. Thus, Opera has languished with a market share under 1 percent.

All of this may change now. On Sept. 20th, Opera Software released version 8.50. It's cost-free and ad-free, and you'd be crazy not to try it out.

First, the pros.

It's fast - really fast. My visual observations will never equate to benchmark tests, but running all the various browsers side-by-side, I perceive that Opera smokes them all in rendering speed (Camino is close, but it's for Mac only, lacks many of Opera's best features and is still a work in progress). This shouldn't be surprising when you consider that this application has been under continuous development for 12 years.

Next, it's gorgeous. The interface is very clean, and its tech-savvy fans have been creating beautiful skins for it for years.

Third, it's extremely versatile. It contains a virtual Swiss Army knife of Internet tools and settings that you won't find elsewhere. It also has a multitude of different ways it can be configured. There are some cons of which you should be aware.

First, since Opera's source code is proprietary and unique, virtually no Web developers (myself included) take Opera into account when creating sites. Thus, some sites, mainly those geared almost exclusively to MIE users, don't always render accurately. However, since Opera now adheres strictly to W3C standards (which Microsoft refuses to do), this isn't nearly the problem it used to be. Opera also contains a tool to help fool Web sites into believing it's a different browser.

Secondly, although it's considered to have superior security features, I have yet to solve the mystery of managing cookies within Opera. Many of my favorite sites are telling me that I have to grant full unrestricted access to cookies, even when I've granted specific rights to that individual site. I don't like this.

Some of what I've read online indicates that this may have to do with problem No. 1 - that some sites just don't work well with Opera. As the online community continues to move toward the W3C standard and away from the MIE model, this may change. But in the meantime, I believe this is the area which Opera Software needs to direct the most focus on improving.

My third issue is actually specific to Mac OS X users. PDF export is a native function within OS X and is something I use almost daily. Opera is the first application for OS X I've come across which doesn't support PDF export - I have no idea why.

Opera's revenue is now mostly acquired through licensing agreements. If you download the software (at http://www.opera.com), you should use the search engine fields that are incumbent to the interface, such as the ones for Google and Amazon. If you do, you'll help secure a stable revenue stream for the company and thus continuing development of its products.

My affection for the open-source community is well known, and my support for the Mozilla project remains unabated. I believe that the nature of the open-source community may eventually lead to the various flavors of Mozilla (Firefox, Netscape, etc.) catching up to Opera in terms of speed and versatility.

But for now, Opera can rightly claim to be the Porsche of Web browsers - Sleek, gorgeous, wonderfully engineered and faster than a bat outta you-know-where. Imagine getting a Porsche for free!

Oops! I need to point out a mistake in my column about the iPod Nano. In a paragraph discussing the cost of flash memory, I used the figure "4 MB." This should have read "4 GB." I wrote this and then missed my own error and I apologize.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com

Copyright © 2005, Daily Press