Opera is stepping up efforts to grab share of the Web browser market. To do that, the tiny Norwegian company released a version of its software that's designed to give users more control over the information they upload and share via the Web.
The way things work now, much of the information sent over the Web, from photos saved on Facebook to chats via instant-message software, is handled by servers run by big companies, typically outside the average user's control.
The Next Step in Cloud Computing
Opera Unite, part of the June 16 release of the Opera 10 browser, aims to change that by letting registered users make the contents of their hard drive accessible to friends and colleagues anywhere in the world, and host activities like chatting and message boards directly from their computers, instead of via servers owned by providers of commercial Web services. Peer-to-peer companies like Napster have in the past also let users share files directly from their hard drives, but Opera's product expands the range of files users can publish.
Opera (OPERA.OL) says the new feature will be useful for Internet users who are uncomfortable sharing their files and interacting with friends over privately owned Web sites, which set their own rules for privacy, and can't always be counted on to store files permanently. "If you upload your photos to a site that is owned by someone, you're basically uploading your life—and you might be giving away certain rights," says Christen Krogh, Opera's chief development officer. Opera Unite lets users set passwords for access to selected files on their computers. Additionally, Krogh says Opera Unite helps users save time they would otherwise spend uploading files to the Web or sending them in an e-mail.
In a trend known as cloud computing, individuals and companies increasingly are shifting computing tasks, including storage of sensitive data, to servers maintained by outside companies such as Google (GOOG), Facebook, Amazon (AMZN), and Microsoft (MSFT).
Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner contends that computer-to-computer transactions like the ones Opera Unite encourages are simply the next step in cloud computing. "We are actually making the cloud a lot bigger" by adding more, dispersed connections across the Web, von Tetzchner says.
The new Opera 10 release includes six applications that take advantage of the added sharing capability: file sharing, a virtual message board called the "fridge," a media player for streaming songs to other computers; photo-sharing; a chat room called "the lounge," and a server for hosting your own Web site.
Bringing Unite to Mobile
Opera is a relatively small player in the tussle for share of the Web browser market. "While all browsers want to ensure that they have the same features in order to have parity, they need to differentiate themselves in some way," says Sheri McLeish, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR). Microsoft is the largest, though its Internet Explorer has lost ground by about 7 percentage points over the past year. It held about 66% in May, according to researcher Net Applications. Mozilla's Firefox had 22.5% and Apple's (AAPL) Safari held 8.4%. Since its launch in September, Google Chrome has eked out almost 2% of the market; Opera remains below 1%.
Opera may be a laggard in Web browsing, but in mobile it's king. This month, the mobile version of Opera—used on phones running Nokia's Symbian operating system and Windows Mobile, and Nintendo's (7974.T) DS gaming handheld—claimed more than 24% of the mobile browser market, surpassing the use of Safari on iPhones, according to data aggregator StatCounter.
The company is dropping hints that Opera Unite could eventually be optimized for mobile phones. "This is starting off on the PC side, but I think you can see how this can be used in all kinds of devices as well," says von Tetzchner. Such a service might mimic the type of mobile applications currently offered by companies like Evernote and SugarSync, which provide users with on-the-go access to documents stored on their home computers.