Opera for Linux: We wish them luck but…

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Review I finally got around to a full day of playing with the (proprietary) Opera Browser 5.0 Linux beta. It's the fastest browser I've ever used in any operating system, but I'm not ready to spend $39 or look at annoying ads in return for using it. And with (free, Open Source) Konqueror steadily improving, Opera may never be able to make a living selling its browser to Linux users unless the company has some very big and sexy rabbits waiting to be pulled out of its development hat.

First, let me tell you about the ads. The "free" version of Opera throws an ad in the upper right hand corner of the screen. For someone like me whose bad eyes and 14.1" laptop screen dictate 800X600 screen resolution, this is a major annoyance because it eats up a significant amount of my tiny working space. Then I go to a site that is already as full of ads as I can tolerate (like NewsForge itself, which admittedly rides the edge of readability in this respect) and I simply can't handle it all.

In return for the ad annoyance I get a browser that won't handle plugins; now and then I have no choice but to wade through governement documents published in Acrobat format, and I've got to admit that I like to grab a little sound and fury in Real or Flash now and then. Opera's current Linux beta also freezes me out of any site that uses Java. I may not love Java-laden sites, but until I have King of the World power over all Web design it is something I must live with.

Opera's Linux beta also doesn't have email built-in, a factor that might not bother Pine users, but I'm a lazy cuss who has been using Netscape Messenger for years, and I have gotten spoiled by the ease of simply using one (admittedly bloated) piece of software for virtually all of my online browsing and communication needs.

OK, fine. Give me plugins, Java, and email, and maybe I'll love Opera enough to pay $39 for it, because I am not going to want those ads on my screen for any length of time. The basic speed and near-perfect, "full compliance" site rendering job Opera does is awesome compared to either Netscape or Explorer. If I used Windows, I would almost certainly pay to use Opera instead of being forced to choose between the "big two," both of which are free, but neither of which is less proprietary than Opera. And yes, the Windows version of Opera has all the neat add-ons that make Web browsing fun (plus an integrated email utility) so I would give up no functionality by switching to it.

And then there's Konqueror

It's rough writing pay-for Linux software. Applix learned this the hard way. Despite denials by their PR person, not long after I wrote the linked-to article they spun off the "VistaSource" division responsible for ApplixWare desktop products. It seems that while their product was decent, it wasn't enough better than free StarOffice or its GPL descendant OpenOffice that a whole lot of people wanted to cough up cash for it.

I'm not saying Linux users won't pay for software -- many of us will -- but to get our money you need to give us something far better than programs we can download and use for free, like Konqueror, the KDE Web browser.

Konq (Konqueror's nickname) hasn't yet won my stodgy heart away from Netscape 4.7X, but it keeps getting closer. It handles Netscape plugins, Java, and most CSS just fine, and the KDE email program, Kmail, is at least as good as Netscape Messenger. (Only inertia has kept me from switching email clients already, and unless an obviously superior point/click Linux email handler crosses my desk in the next few weeks, I'll probably make the jump to full-time Kmail use within a month or so.)

Opera takes less disk space and renders pages slightly faster than Konq. But these are its only advantages in any practical sense that affects my daily browser usage. Konq is not yet stable enough for my taste (Opera has not crashed on me even once yet), and the Konq version I have (included in KDE 2.01) doesn't handle the cascading style sheets CNN.com uses to get me to its streaming video and audio features.

But based on my experience with KDE (which I've been using almost since it first appeared) I have confidence that Konq development will move along rapidly enough that Opera will have a hard time not just keeping up but staying $39 ahead, and if Opera can't manage this feat it is going to be toast in the Linux browser marketplace.

Mozilla lurks in the background

Yes, that endless project is still alive, putting out a steady stream of ever-better builds, moving incrementally closer to being consumer-usable every month. Someday there will be a 1.0 release, and when it comes it will have the powerful Netscape name attached to it, although what *many* people I know hope -- and I hope myself -- is that other developers will take the basic Mozilla rendering engine and make an Opera-speed program from it. The official Netscape version has so many junk features attached to it that it looks like paying $39 for Opera would save at least that much over Netscape in needed hard drive space and processing power. But who can say? Tons of work have gone into Mozilla, and it has had more lines of copy written about it than lines of code that have gone into the darn thing, so it will certainly be a significant Linux browser even if it is less than perfect.

The upshot

Opera will never be used by Free Software purists; it is straight-up, unashamed proprietary commercial software, a defect not shared by Konq or Mozilla. So let's assume Opera for Linux is aimed -- as a product -- at Windows users switching to Linux who are in the habit of paying for software and could care less if they or more-skilled friends have access to source code or the right to pass software along to friends free of charge.

Will there be enough of these people out there soon enough, all willing to pay $39 for a browser when other Linux browsers can be had for free?

Your guess is as good as mine. I'll admit that if the first "finished" release of Opera for Linux has all the features I'm used to in Netscape, maintains its current speed and small footprint, and no other free (beer and/or speech) browser project gives me similar functionality first, I would consider buying Opera.

Would you?

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