Opera Unite: divided

June 17, 2009 | 1 comment

Following on from my post yesterday on Opera’s new web-server-in-a-browser product, Chris Messina has written a pretty scathing, in-depth critique that also happens to be very smart and on the money. The Financial Times Techblog has an equally skeptical post but misses the point a bit.

In summary: Opera Unite uses the buzzwords of openness, without explaining why they’re useful in a way that makes sense for end users, and without actually being open.

The point Chris makes about users not caring about decentralization without having its follow-on benefits made clear resonates loud and clear with me. Here’s an interview where I talk about data portability and user control – two years ago. Nothing has changed, because nobody’s found a clear way to make this a marketable feature for end users. I’m beginning to think there isn’t one – which isn’t, of course, to say that I don’t strongly believe in the concept. It’ll allow for all kinds of new applications and push the envelope of what’s possible on the web, if we can find the business case for the steps in between.

Meanwhile, I’d love to post a counterpoint. Anyone want to write a post about why Opera Unite is awesome?

Opera Unite: a great idea, wrong center

June 16, 2009 | 2 comments

Opera just released Opera Unite, a version of their web browser that also contains a built-in web server. As Harry McCracken explains over at Technologizer:

While it’s impossible to judge at this early date whether it’ll “forever change the fundamental fabric of the Web” as Opera promised, it’s a very big idea. Web browsers have always been about bringing information from the Web onto a PC. With Unite, Opera 10 still does that–but it can also fling information from the PC up to the Internet. [..] It launches with some apps that Opera developed itself, including a file-sharing service, a chat room, a music player, a photo-sharing tool, and a note-taker.

Engadget has a video introduction to the application.

This is yet another entrant into the decentralized social web space, but it violates one of my key rules of web application development: keep the browser invisible. Here’s why I think this is important.

I own three computers – two Windows laptops and a Linux machine that runs Ubuntu, and which have never seen a computer repairs greenslopes store in years–  and as well as an iPhone. All can access the web. At any given moment, I can be connected with any of these devices, depending on which is the most appropriate. For example, I use a 17” laptop at home, but if I’m travelling I’ll take my 12” model; when these are switched off, I might use my iPhone to quickly check something on the web or write a swift email. Additionally, sometimes I connect using other peoples’ machines, or computers in offices I happen to be visiting.

One of the exciting features of the web is that I can use my applications and access my data from any of these. Although I have my preferences as to which device I use, my applications and my data don’t care. They’re agnostic.

As soon as I require a particular browser to be used, I limit myself. I can only access this functionality from the devices that have it installed – which in the case of my iPhone or someone else’s computer is an impossibility. The Opera Labs announcement provides a pretty sound reasoning for decentralized, user-centric services:

Our computers are only dumb terminals connected to other computers (meaning servers) owned by other people — such as large corporations — who we depend upon to host our words, thoughts, and images. We depend on them to do it well and with our best interests at heart. We place our trust in these third parties, and we hope for the best, but as long as our own computers are not first class citizens on the Web, we are merely tenants, and hosting companies are the landlords of the Internet.

However, Opera Unite provides a different kind of centralization and locks us into a particular way of accessing the web. It still yields useful functionality but is a far cry from the cloud-based social architecture that most web application providers are working towards.

Update: To clarify, you don’t need Opera Unite to access services someone else is hosting using Unite. But then aren’t you only half-participating?