Opera Unite Divides Opinion

Posted in The Internet by Dan on June 17th, 2009

Opera Software would have you believe that yesterday they reinvented the web.  The launch of their new Opera Unite service has received a decent amount of publicity. By now you’ve probably heard all about it, but if not you can read the details here.

The 10 second summary is that version 10 of Opera’s web browser contains a web server that allows users to serve web content directly from their desktop machines or laptops. However, this description doesn’t really capture the potential of the platform.

Some commentators have dismissed the announcement with a “so what?”. Opera Unite content is only going to be available while the user’s computer is switched on and running Opera and will be constrained by their available upload bandwidth (which often isn’t much thanks to the ‘A’ in ADSL). That doesn’t really cut it when compared to low-cost web hosting packages capable of serving thousands of users, but then the comparison isn’t particularly helpful.

I don’t need Opera Unite to host my personal website from my desktop. I can install and configure Apache, tweak my firewall/router settings and find a solution to dynamic IP address issues. The point is that with Opera Unite, you don’t have to do any of that.  Opera have completely eliminated all of that hassle and in doing so have made web serving accessible to even non-technical users.  But that’s only half of the story. Serving your personal home page via Opera Unite is still sub-optimal. If you want (semi-)permanent web hosting, pay for some cheap PHP hosting or get a WordPress.com account.

If somebody gives you an Opera Unite URL, you shouldn’t expect that resource to be still around tomorrow or next year like you would with a link to Wikipedia. The real value in Opera Unite is in ad hoc sharing and transient collaboration. Things that were possible but bothersome previously are now trivial because you don’t have to worry about server configuration and networking issues.

For example, say I wanted to invite every reader of this blog to join a chat session. I could try to find out which IM clients you all use and try to arrange something via MSN Messenger, Skype or Google Talk. Or I could install and configure my own IRC server. Or I could try to find a third-party server to host the chat room. With Opera Unite I can simply open up my lounge and give you all the URL (regardless of which browser you happen to be using). It just takes a few clicks. The service is transient.  When we’re done, I kick you all out.

In our chat session I might decide to share some photos or other files with you.  I could send them via e-mail or upload them to an FTP server or a service like Flickr, but again it’s simpler with Unite. I just enable the appropriate service and share the URL. You can browse my shared directory and grab what you want directly from my machine. The link probably won’t work tomorrow, but you won’t need it tomorrow. Temporary is fine when it’s this easy.

The other service that I’m already finding useful is the media player, which enables me to remotely play my home MP3 collection from the office. The Unite platform is based on open standards, so it will be interesting to see what other ideas for services people come up with.