Last night, Opera released an alpha build of
and, to hear them tell it,
reinvented the internet
in the process. With a claim as big as that, we think it's important to take a good, hard look at Opera Unite
what is it, what can it do, and will it really change the way we use the web?
So first, what is Opera Unite? Basically, it's a version of the Opera browser with built-in server software, which allows users of Opera Unite to send data (everything from text to multimedia) directly to other people on the web, even if they're using a different browser, and all without having to upload anything to a traditional server. Opera's billing this as a way to free yourself from the tyranny of the datacenter, allowing you to share pictures without having to put them on a stranger's computer, network socially without having to subject yourself to Facebook's terms of service, collaborate without relying on the Google Docs server, and so on and so forth.
But what can it really do?
Right now, Opera Unite is more of a proof of concept than anything. They have a couple apps (which Opera has termed "Unite Services") available already, including a Facebook Wall-style "Fridge," a chat client called "The Lounge" and a streaming media service. Every person running Unite gets a Unite Homepage, (hosted on their own computer, of course) which other people can connect to, in order to see a list of which Unite Services that person is hosting. In other words, if I wanted to host a chat for my friends, they would simply log onto my Opera Unite homepage (with an address like unite://mypc.examplename.operaunite.com/) then click on the chat app.
Of course, these services are all very much in the alpha stage right now, and it's hard to imagine anyone switching to Opera just to use killer apps like "Fridge," but Opera's hoping that people will recognize the huge potential of Unite, and that will spur interest and development for the platform. But before we worry too much about how much potential Opera Unite has, let's discuss...
In addition to a lot of positive early buzz, Opera's announcement has also been met with some pretty stiff skepticism. Here are some of the major points to keep in mind:
There are good reasons that people use servers.
What do you suppose happens when someone tries to connect to your Opera Unite homepage or services while you have your computer turned off? Yep, they get a service not available message. So, if you wanted to host, say, a Facebook-style profile with Opera Unite, and have it always be available, you'd have to leave your PC on 24/7. For a datacenter, which uses high-efficiency server hardware and has the economics of scale on its side, that's not a problem, but for the average person leaving your computer on all the time would mean a noticeable hike in the electricity bill.
Also, datacenters have industrial-strength bandwidth, which is simply not the case for most individual households. Even with a high-quality broadband connection, low upload rates mean that if a Unite-hosted blog post you write gets passed around and linked, your PC just won't be able to handle the demand.
Servers aren't entirely out of the picture
As much as Opera likes to stress the peer-to-peer nature of Unite, there is actually still a server in the picture, and it belongs to Opera itself. When you type a Unite address into the address bar of your browser, the Opera proxy server has to redirect you to the Opera Unite server you're trying to reach. Sure, your files aren't stored on this server, but you're still screwed if Opera's datacenter gets hit by a meteor, or something.
No one uses Opera
We kid, we kid. There are of course plenty of people out there using Opera, but percentage-wise it's a negligable portion of the overall internet userbase. Maybe Opera Unite will help the browser gain more traction, but it seems more likely that this technology won't make much of a splash until a bigger player like Mozilla incorporates it into their own browser.
But back to potential...
It's hard to look at what Opera's doing with Unite and not find a lot of potential there. Despite the drawbacks we've already covered, it a pretty exciting new way to look at the internet. And although the applications are rough now, who knows what kinds of services, tools and games will be written for Unite in the near future.
But don't just take our word for it, hit up the Opera website,
, and then let us know what you think about it in the comments.