Browser wars mean Netscape and Microsoft - but there are other companies playing in this market, not least Norwegian developer Opera.
The company recently announced that it is now actively developing versions for the Amiga, BeOS, Linux, Mac, OS/2, Solaris, and Symbian (Psion) Epoc32 operating systems, bringing a usually little noticed company into the headlines for once.
Opera does not see itself as a combatant in the browser war. Indeed, the company follows no conventional business model, behaving in a way that has had considerable appeal to its supporters but is unlikely to result in its creators being on the covers of business magazines. But it may still have considerable value in some emerging markets, particularly among users who have little IT experience or who need to use low specification clients.
The development of Opera started in 1994 at Telnor, the Norwegian telco, where a team including Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner and Geir Ivarsxy developed a browser for the company?s Intranet. Their vision was a simple - a better browser for all computer users, and especially those with older machines, or disabilities.
Telnor did not see itself as being in the software business, so to pursue their dream, von Tetzchner and Ivarsxy left Telnor by agreement and took with them the right to develop the browser in an independent company, Opera Software AS. The company is closely held, and sufficiently successful to make it self financing despite being a one product outfit.
Opera can be sure that the awards that it has received are unrelated to any advertising, since it does not do any. Its marketing has principally consisted of developing a Web site, www.operasoftware.com, and running some newsgroups. Even so, more than a million copies have been downloaded, and versions have been made available as cover CD-Roms on computer magazines. Opera says that hundreds of Internet service providers are now including its browser in their Internet start-up kits.
The first version of Opera was made available from its Web site in the third quarter of 1996 as a shareware development - the 16-bit and 32-bit Windows versions were functionally identical. Unlike most browsers, it was written from scratch and has no ancestry in Mosaic, the earlier Cern text based browser, or the X Windows Viola interface - the foundation for Mosaic, and subsequently both Navigator and Microsoft IE.
The distinguishing design features of Opera, it claims, are its adherence to standards and its efficiency. The efficiency has been achieved by not using public sourcecode libraries for Web functions, or Microsoft Foundation Classes C++ libraries.
"We found we could do these things better ourselves," von Tetzcher notes, attributing the slow speed of existing browsers in part to the use of Microsoft's libraries. Initially, Opera used the the Borland compiler, but not the Borland libraries. As the versions developed, it was remarkable that version 3.1 was smaller and faster than 3.0.
Opera follows the HTML 3.2 specification, and SSL 2 and 4 encryption, so it can be used by Web page developers as a check that their pages work in a standard way. Where Opera does not seem to render pages correctly, an independent check using the W3C's HTML Validator usually reveals that there are problems with the tags in the pages rendered. Web site developers are increasingly testing their pages with Opera because of its adherence to standards, since there is a high probability that if the pages display correctly with Opera, they will also display with both Navigator and IE.
However, von Tetzchner said that because Navigator and IE do not really follow the standards, Opera sometimes has to mimic what they do, which can cause problems.
There have been more than a million downloads from the Web site, with some hundreds of thousands of users electing to pay a registration fee of $35 at the end of the 30-day free trial period.
With most users outside the US paying for telephone access costs, the downloading speed is particularly attractive. Opera beats both Navigator and IE in terms of speed. Informal benchmarks show that it is more than twice as fast as IE in downloading from the microsoft.com Web site, and five times faster than .
On other sites, Opera is generally up to twice as fast as other browsers, for two reasons - it does not yet have Java capability, so it avoids the problem of slow Java rendering; and it is less likely to get swapped out from Ram to virtual memory as a result of its small size, although with 64Mbytes RAM PCs, this is less likely.
Users seem to be very enthusiastic about the design of Opera's hotlinks, which can also be forward or reverse sorted. Opera can import both Navigator bookmarks and IE favorites. An interesting feature of Opera is that it can retrieve multiple documents at the same time, have multiple open windows, and preserve the virtual workspace between sessions, so that users can immediately carry on where they left off.
The size of text can be scaled between 20 and 1,000 per cent, which is useful both for the visually impaired, and for users to free themselves from the tyranny of Web designers' point sizes. There are also keyboard alternatives for those who cannot use a mouse, or who prefer keyboard strokes.
Opera's Project Magic - also known as ?Winfree? Opera - was announced last October, and is developing versions of the product for other operating systems. Opera has newsgroups that report on the progress of these versions.
Helmar Rudolph, manager of Opera's Project Magic and the nearest that the company has to a marketing person, notes that several thousand users have pledged support for non Windows versions. Fanatical Amiga users have sometimes swamped Opera's Web site to press their support for their own version. This is now being developed in Reading by Tim Corringham of Panjam Consultants. Corringham is a computer scientist from the University of East Anglia, involved in compiler development, when he is not working with his beloved Amiga, and he is being assisted in the project by a number of UEA students. The version is expected in December, which should also please von Tetzchner, who is himself an Amiga user.
Work on the Epoc32 port is being undertaken by Keith Hollis of Fawnbench in the UK. An alpha release is expected next month, and he believes the final shipment will be December. Like many developers working with Opera, Hollis has been an enthusiast since he bought his first Psion.
Opera has signed a contract for the porting of the Mac version, which will be developed in the US. The Linux version is also being developed in the US , with the same group going on to develop a Solaris release afterwards. And a BeOS implementation is being created in Sweden.
User support is a considerable problem for a small organisation with a new product and some real bugs. Because of its small staff, Opera is not able to respond quickly to support questions. For users, it is important to know the state of play on bugs, and Opera is considering pioneering an online database listing known bugs, progress reports, and workarounds. Many corporate users are not prepared to read all the details about a product before calling a helpline.
Since Opera only has email based support that encounters an automatic responder, there would appear to be an opportunity for a fee based support service.
Opera has not yet reached maturity. Apart from not supporting Java, Opera is also an ActiveX free zone, has a rudimentary email client and news reader, and does not yet have cascading style sheets. Opera's icons are rather wimpy and not particularly intuitive. Most of these deficiencies should be included in version 4, which may be released later this year, Opera says.
The company has benefited from fortunate timing. Its growth corresponded with concerns about bloatware, and a desire for thinner and faster software. As a European development, versions of Opera in different languages were soon developed - there are now more than 10 language versions available or under development.
There are some parallels between the development of Opera and Linux - quite apart from their Nordic origins. Although the development models are quite different, the ethos and the zealotry of users is similar. Opera expresses its philosophy as follows: "It's not so much about selling as much product as possible, but also showing social responsibility."
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