Now we are 6 – ‘other’ browser Opera reaches next milestone

More platforms than Elton John...

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Our friends in the Norse released Opera 6 for Windows last week, hot on the heels of the technology preview of Opera 6 for Linux, and just a couple of weeks after the public beta of Opera 6 for Windows was released. In addition, Opera is at version 5 for the Mac, with two betas for Classic and Carbon currently in the works, 5.13 for Symbian, 5.2.1 for QNX, and 5.12 beta 1 for OS/2. And you can still get 3.62 for BeOS.

Nor is this by any means the entire list; aside from the implementations directly available from opera.com, the company has licensing deals with quite a number of hardware manufacturers and service providers. AMD, Ericsson and Canal+, for example.

On the Windows platform Opera remains a minority interest compared to IE, but the Symbian work in particular could produce nightmares for Redmond. Symbian is the OS of choice for most of the major mobile phone manufacturers, and Opera is the preferred browser for Symbian. This isn't a market anybody has a commanding lead in right now, because it's not yet much of a market, but once it's rolling it could be the little Norwegian company that has the commanding lead - and there's certainly some significance to Nokia's becoming the top PDA vendor in Europe in Q3.

In addition to this, the browser is becoming an important component to 'living without Microsoft' strategies, or for people trying to support heterogenous networks. You can run a standard browser for Windows (and it wouldn't be at all surprising if Opera's support for, say, NT, outlived Microsoft's), Linux and Mac, plus mobile clients. Microsoft can do Windows, Mac and mobile clients, but despite quantities of Redmond propaganda to the contrary, it does not currently look like it's winning the mobile client war. In addition, Opera doesn't bring the integration/.NET baggage with it, which could be helpful as being embraced by Windows becomes more and more an 'all or nothing' process.

Opera the company, meanwhile, seems to have a plausible strategy whereby it can survive, and possibly prosper. You do actually have to pay $39 for the browser if you don't want an advertisement in the button bar, but otherwise it's free, and the ad itself isn't what you'd call irritating. It also seems to identify your country of origin quite effectively, so presumably Opera is making at least some money out of the ads in the free versions. The multi-platform strategy is also revenue-related. Some of Opera's development is speculative/sentimental, but the QNX version for example derives from a Netvista-related deal with IBM earlier this year. Opera also has other development deals for embedded platforms, and presents itself as a neutral 'third force' for ISPs who're not related to AOL or Microsoft. Things like the decidedly non-commercial OS/2 development on the other hand move at a snail's pace - this sort of stuff is done mainly for love.

Opera version 6.0 has quite a few new features, but they're largely incremental, and the most important things about Opera are really more general. First of all, it's a multi-platform standards-based browser that supports 'proper' Java (unlike some recent efforts); second, it's highly configurable (and allowed you to manage cookies way before Microsoft thought it was a good idea), and third, it has become more generally acceptable over the past few years.

That last one takes a little explaining. In general, if you can't browse a site properly with Opera then it's almost certainly because the site is doing some dubious browser checking and/or is badly set up, rather than because Opera itself has a standards problem. Microsoft sites still do the dubious checking, but patchily - in most cases you can get to a page if you accept the occasional weirdness in the display, and only a few areas do the checking. For example, you can use Opera to go straight to the MSDN homepage (http://msdn.microsoft.com), but click on developer from the Microsoft front page and it'll go into the version checking loop, finally telling you you've got an unsupported browser.

This hasn't changed with the move from 5 to 6, and as is the case with every other browser that isn't IE, you can forget windowsupdate.com too. But in something like three years of using Opera I've got the impression that the number of serious sites you can't use Opera with has steadily declined. It's still useful to keep IE around for use when you really need to get in somewhere picky, but as you can't get IE out of more recent MS products anyway (yet), this isn't much of a hardship, and I'm finding less and less need to use it. With 6, finally, it looks like I can log into tesco.com and do my shopping - not a major breakthrough for Opera, perhaps, but so long as I can actually buy the goods too (can't check until the freezer's empty), it's another reason for me not needing IE around.

Aside from the 'not Microsoft' factor, there are two specific features of Opera that make it particularly useful to me personally. In The Register's line of work you tend to have a lot of web pages open at the same time. It's difficult to keep track of these using IE, even with the slightly improved organisation of web pages available in WinXP. Opera corrals them all into a "Multiple Document Interface." That is, they're all stuck into a single Opera window on the desktop, providing you with a second visible bar where you can read the page titles easily. The ones that have updated since you last looked them are in blue, incidentally, so currently I know that E*Trade Stockwatch has changed. But as it updates every 60 seconds, this is not surprising.

With 6 Opera has introduced the option of using a Single Document Interface of the sort used by IE. From my point of view this isn't progress, but some other people may like it, and I can always ignore it. You can also now run multiple instances of Opera at the same time, which might turn out to be a useful way of organising MDI sessions (for example, I could use one for news gathering and one to organise the pile of wireless networking tech support pages I've been reading without much success for the past two weeks). On the other hand, this might turn out just to be confusing - I haven't decided yet.

The second of my two favourite Opera features is the ability to save your position, and to restart from the interruption point if the app or the machine crashes. If I've got 20-30 pages open, which is by no means unusual, then I'm going to be a deeply sad bunny if they all just vanish with a thud. This can happen with IE, and it can happen with monotonous regularity when Win2k decides not to suspend properly, but with Opera you can just carry on from where you were before. And you can keep a big pile of research material open all of the time, for weeks or months if you like, through crashes and shutdowns. This is such a killer feature I can't understand why Microsoft hasn't stolen it yet.

There are new bells and whistles in 6 that I'll probably never get around to finding, never mind using. There's an intriguing "hotclick" system whereby you can double click on a word in the browser window and have a menu of possible actions, such as dictionary, encyclopaedia and translate presented to you. You can check the lot of them out here, where you'll also find a lot of the features I never found/used in 5 either. But that's not really the point - Opera works for me, and slowly but surely, people are stopping calling me a cussed pervert for using it. ®

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