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The release of the Opera 4 browser by Opera Software of Norway is a significant event because it is the first browser to do a decent job with cascading style sheets (which describe how documents are presented on screens). Those who have come to grief with Netscape's or Microsoft's efforts with CSS might care to try Opera.

It's hardly surprising that Opera has succeeded where others have failed, since Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie proposed the CSS concept in 1994 when he was at CERN with Brit Tim Berners-Lee. Previously he had been at the MIT Media Lab. After the Web project at CERN concluded, he worked for W3C in France. Last year he produced the second edition of his co-authored Addison-Wesley book on CSS. Lie told The Register that he went to Opera in order to do a proper implementation of CSS, having been disappointed with what Navigator and IE had done. The result is available for all to see, with a 30-day free trial (it's $39 thereafter, with discounts for multiple copies and an educational discount of around 50 per cent).

An amusing option allows users to decide whether they wish the Opera browser to be identified as Mozilla, IE or Opera, which may fool those nasty would-be-browser-specific Web pages. Opera does appear to be closer to the official specs than other browsers, so this will be a useful feature to test non-standard pages. At last Opera has implemented the latest Java implementation, so that there is an option to download this at installation time, in order to achieve a simpler installation.

Opera had a bit of a hangup about the code fitting on a 1.44Mb floppy, but has fortunately overcome this and added essential features like a proper mail client. Unicode is being worked on at the moment. It is unfortunate that no formal speed trials against rival browsers seem to have been performed by an independent lab, but users will form their own impressions about its speed.

Opera Software is an unusual company in that it follows a social ethic - for example to make the browser available in minority European languages like Breton and Gaelic as part of its accessibility programme - and is considering moves towards implementing speech commands.

As a consequence, business aspects of the privately held company have taken a back seat while the browser was under major development. It must now be regarded as a serious contender for any browser user. With the release of Opera 4, which requires a further payment by all but the most recent purchasers of the last version of Opera 3, the revenue is likely to increase and Opera could experience more black ink in its accounts. At present, the company employs some 50 people. Ten million Norwegian Kroner were raised recently to make it possible to get more.

More than 1.5 million people use Opera, and this is likely to increase rapidly as a result of OEM deals with Ericsson and Psion. Mass awareness has been increased by it being included on the cover CDs of trade mags, but in view of it small size, downloading is likely to be the main method of distribution. As to proof that Opera has arrived, IDG has done Opera Browser for Dummies. ®

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