logo

Features - The Little Browser That Could: A Review of Opera

By Mark P. Albright, Published on April 30, 1998

Mark P. Albright maintains a solo practice in Allentown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., emphasizing employment law compliance and litigation from an employer perspective, as well as consultation and litigation of computer and technology, real estate, Orphans Court, and general commercial disputes. He has chaired the Law Day Committee of both the Lehigh and Berks County (PA) Bar Associations and served as a lecturer for both organizations on the Internet and other topics. He has also served as a statewide lecturer for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute on "The Internet for Pennsylvania Lawyers."  In addition to participating in the Donald E. Wieand, Sr. American Inn of Court, and authoring a weekly column in his local bar association's law journal, Mr. Albright has served as a beta tester for Websites of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and PaLawNet. He received his J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law and his A.B. from Albright College (Reading, PA), summa cum laude.


Introduction

It's long been said that good things come in small packages, and no better example of that adage exists than the Opera Web browser. Fast becoming the tool of choice for a growing number of hardcore Internet users, the Opera browser has attracted the online community's attention (in my not so humble opinion) for a single reason: its creators dare to challenge the wacky "terabyte hard drive/64 megs of RAM/bandwidth-be-damned" mentality driving Internet client design and implementation these days in Redmond and Mountain View. My own prejudices having been revealed up front, let's move on to examine Opera's roots, its current implementation, shortcomings, and future course.

History

Developed in 1994 by a team of researchers at Telenor, Norway's telephone company, Opera today continues to evolve in the hands of a small, privately (and closely) held company headed by former Telenor team members Geir Ivarsoy and Jon von Tetzchner. In its original incarnation, the Opera browser grew out of a perceived need for an Internet and multimedia client which would be genuinely accessible to all computer users, specifically including those with older machines, as well as persons with a variety of disabilities.

The avowed goals of the original Telenor team - which continue to drive the Opera browser's development today - center upon four aspects of software architecture and implementation:

  • the speed at which the program starts and thereafter retrieves information from the Internet
  • the size of the program (both the executable and the installed footprint
  • system resource requirements (i.e., far less dependent on massive amounts of RAM for efficient functioning)
  • overall user-friendliness (emphasizing both ease of navigation and almost endless customizability)

The Opera browser was first publicly released via the Internet in the third quarter of 1996 in a 90-day shareware version known as "2.1." Since then, its development has come increasingly to be guided and influenced by an amazing collaboration among its creators in Kjeller, Norway, and users around the globe, who engage in ongoing dialogue by way of several usenet newsgroups established, monitored and participated in by a variety of Opera staffers: notably including its principals and chief programmers, who occasionally weigh in to answer questions about existing product features and future functionality.

Opera Today

Although Opera is currently available only for personal computers using Windows or OS/2 operating systems, the company has been working for some time to get a native Mac version - as well as native Be, Amiga, Psion, and UNIX OS flavors - off the ground. It is important to understanding the Opera way of thinking to note that this software was written from scratch, and is not based on NCSA Mosaic code or any other browser. It is this aspect of Opera which is responsible, in large measure, for the program's extremely small executable and installed footprint. Because of its antecedents, Opera runs independently under Windows 3.1 without requiring installed Win32s. (It is also available, however, for Windows 95 and NT-based systems.)

Features

  • an executable which, for both Win 3x and Win95/NT flavors, fits onto a single 1.44 MB floppy diskette
  • extremely simple installation, which takes less than 30 seconds and leaves an installed footprint of only 1.7 MB
  • capable of running satisfactorily even on such "retro" platforms as 386 SX's with 8MB of memory
  • ability to load and view multiple documents at the same time, within a familiar user interface enabling easy tiling and cascading of documents (Opera even has a built-in auto-tile function which, like nearly all of the browser's features, may be switched on or off)
  • ability to start up with multiple windows (Websites) displayed, as well as the ability to "remember" and start with the same setup as when the user last exited (coupled with the flexibility of controlling each individual window's display options independently: i.e., graphics/no graphics, designated home page, etc.)
  • support for full (and they mean full) keyboard navigation, making Opera an excellent browser choice for visually impaired netsurfers
  • secure news server access
  • support for multiple graphics formats (including JPEG, GIF, XBM BMP and animated GIF); AVI video (requires Video for Windows 1.1), as well as MPEG video (requires MPEG software or hardware), background sounds and MIDI music; NS-compatible plugins (such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, Quicktime, RealAudio, IPIX, Chemscape, Lightning Strike and others); Javascript (only when needed); SSL 2.0 and 3.0, plus TLS 1.0 - 128bit encryption (only when needed)
  • an extremely impressive hotlist implementation - in my opinion, more easily accessible,  well organized and feature-rich than Netscape's, which I once considered to be the gold standard. One such feature is the program's ability to simultaneously access and open all of the Websites listed in a particular hotlist subdirectory with a single click of the mouse (or keystroke combo)

Most notably, in rendering web pages, Opera adheres strictly to the World Wide Web Consortium's HTML v.3.2 standard, a characteristic enabling webmasters to use Opera as a standard reference browser to ensure that their pages are accessible to all, rather than limited to those with a specific browser. (I personally consider "Optimized for Netscape, IE, etc." tags an affront to both the spirit of the Internet and the whole reason HTML was created in the first place.) This, of course, can be both a blessing and a curse, as some site developers' uses of proprietary tags, as well as the sloppy, nonstandard code often generated by WYSIWYG HTML editors, can yield some pretty strange results when rendered by Opera. That's my cue to segue into . . .

Opera's Shortcomings

Opera v.3.21 lacks an integrated, full-featured e-mail client, and this is a rather serious omission. (Of course, I felt the same way when Netscape abandoned its successful Navigator line with integral e-mail to follow the massive, hardware-dependent Communicator suite format.) Opera does feature a very basic mailto function, and further permits a user to specify a third party e-mail application such as Eudora or Pegasus to be activated through WebPages "mailto" links.

Opera also sports a quirky, buggy and rather rudimentary integrated newsreader client. Despite the newsreader's flaws, though, I've found it still enables me to shift back and forth between viewing a Website and a newsgroup (or for that matter, multiple Websites and newsgroups) with far greater facility than would be possible using either Netscape or Internet Explorer.

Those of you who frequent so-called "bleeding edge" Websites may well be more disconcerted by some of Opera's other shortcomings. In particular, the program can't handle Java at all; the same goes for cascading style sheets, dynamic HTML and other webwonk toys. All of that, however, is currently well under control and chugging along in R & D, according to the plucky Norwegians. There's no doubt in my mind that people brave enough to eat lutefisk will ultimately prevail in efforts to produce a functional and efficient Java module for their browser.

Seriously, the only other significant gripe I have about the Opera browser, one which others have echoed in past posts to the company's opera.tech newsgroup, is its failure to offer a "Relaxed Standards" mode which would afford users the option either of insisting on visited sites' adherence to the World Wide Web Consortium's HTML v.3.2 standard, or of permitting rendering of site elements in accordance with nonstandard (but sadly, increasingly universally employed) proprietary tags and implementations.

What's Ahead for Opera

Helmar Rudolph, Opera's principal marketing person, issued a progress report on next-generation functionality of Opera earlier this year which noted that:

[w]e are working day and night on v 4.0. Java and CSS (cascading style sheets) are making good progress, and our email client is also taking shape. Multiple accounts and attachments are already working, and Falk, the man in charge, is adding new features all the time. Geir, who is working on CSS, will not only provide us with the first clean implementation of CSS1, but is also busy with CSS2, something neither of our competitors has been able to achieve. All in all, you can look forward to many more exciting features in Opera. As far as size is concerned, it is our aim to keep v4.0 - including Java, CSS, the mailer and a vastly improved newsreader - under 2MB, and I certainly think this is an outstanding achievement by any standards.

In a more recent post to one of Opera's newsgroups, Helmar noted that in addition to a full email client, Opera v.4.0 will feature an offline newsreader; file upload capabilities; searchable bookmarks; better cookie management; allowance for saving of longer URLs (4,096bytes) in the hotlist; and other goodies. Whether Opera is able to deliver on these promises remains to be seen. For what it's worth, it's been my experience that each new release version of Opera seems to run a bit more crisply, to have fixed annoying prior glitches, and to introduce new and thoughtful functionality. By way of example, when Opera v.3.20 was released, in addition to a host of bugfixes (which the company refreshingly refers to in all of its literature as "bugfixes"), the software featured a new option called "Save Page and Images as...", allowing users to save an entire page in a directory of their choice with one click of the mouse (or combo keyboard stroke). This was in direct response to a host of user pleas for this handy and timesaving feature.

An equally instructive example of the Opera development team's commitment to first principles is the fact that when v.3.10 became available at the beginning of this year, it was actually smaller and started faster than its predecessor which had just been released in December of 1997. The fact that all of this is proceeding apace in a developmental environment which Opera's creators have intentionally made a "virtual fishbowl" - i.e., through the interactive company newsgroups - is even more impressive, in my opinion, and speaks volumes for Opera Software A.G.'s corporate philosophy and attitude toward its users.

Rather than subtly - or not so subtly - punishing its users for failing to migrate to more powerful computers by denying or restricting access to enhanced features on new software releases, Opera appears genuinely to be striving to optimize the total Internet experience for as broad a community of users as possible, within the constraints imposed by its admittedly limited capital and human resources. Moreover, past communiqués from the company indicate that while Opera's owners recognize they could readily generate the additional cash needed to extend Opera's reach to other platforms and OS's through taking the company public, they have been reluctant to do so because of their commitment to dealing with employees, customers, and the integrity of the development process itself, without any pressures which might be imposed to sacrifice values for expediency. How could you not admire people like this?!

Endnotes

In contrast to the free browser software available from Netscape and Microsoft to the Internet community, there is a charge for the Opera browser following expiration of a free thirty-day trial; however, the paltry $35.00 spent on this very configurable and increasingly useful Internet tool is, all things considered, well worth it. I would particularly recommend this product to attorneys, paralegals and other legal research professionals, who have an inherent need to surf their own Web their way in order to skim, harvest and cull the information they require efficiently from the increasingly vast bulk of information and materials available online. Further information on the Opera browser, including download, registration, user newsgroups and development details may be found at Opera Online: http://www.operasoftware.com or http://opera.nta.no.

Copyright © 1998 Mark P. Albright. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.