Opera launches Unite, sticks Web server in browser

Adds alpha to Opera 10, includes services for sharing files, music and photos, hosting sites

In a bid to boost its share of the browser market, Opera Software today unveiled an alpha build of Opera Unite, a technology platform that adds a compact Web server to its browser and lets users share files, photos and music without using third-party services.

"We are enabling every single computer to be a two-way street on the Internet," CEO Jon von Tetzchner said in a Webcast the company held early this morning to introduce the early version of Unite.

The collaborative technology has been embedded in Opera 10, the still-in-beta browser that the company will release in final form alongside that application, said Christen Krogh, the company's chief development officer. He declined to set a timetable, but said that Unite would be "part of Opera 10" and would be released "as soon as possible." The beta version of Opera 10 was launched last week.

Along with the alpha -- which Krogh pitched to developers as a platform for creating additional services -- Opera packaged half a dozen services of its own, including file sharing, a media player, photo sharing and a Facebook-style "wall" dubbed "Fridge" where users can leave notes for each other.

The "Web Server" service, meanwhile, allows users to host an already-created Web site from any Unite-equipped computer using a special URL that Opera assigns. Users will have to turn to other tools to craft such sites, however.

"This is a new platform for utilizing a Web server inside your browser," explained Krogh. "It's a normal Opera browser, but bundled with a Web server inside that browser."

The six included services add functionality to the browser. The media player service, for example, effectively turns any Opera-equipped computer into a music file-sharing service that streams tunes to any other browser. Users can set the service as public, private or a password-protected hybrid. Only tracks that lack anti-piracy protection can be shared.

Although Opera 10 is needed to run Unite and its server-like services, any browser can access the shared content. Opera expects that third-party developers will come up with new concepts on sharing, collaboration and social networking. "Opera Unite applications can be just about anything," said Lawrence Eng, a product analyst with the company, in a long blog post Tuesday. "What Opera Unite offers is an opportunity and a challenge to developers and entrepreneurs who are creative enough to envision new ways that people can interact online."

Krogh described Unite services as akin to widgets, the small single-purpose applications popularized by Apple's Mac OS X. "You install them a lot like you install widgets," Krogh said. "And they're as secure as a browser running a widget." The six demo services are small; none is larger than 300K in size.

The idea of Unite is to ditch the middleman -- third-party services, including in-the-cloud services, and their servers -- said von Tetzchner, and let users collaborate or share directly with each other. After dismissing major shifts in Internet use such as Web 2.0 as more of the same, von Tetzchner called Unite "Web 5.0," and added: "We tend to be a few years ahead of the curve."

Opera has led some trends in browser development. It was the first major browser to institute tabs, for instance, a feature that other browsers have since adopted.

But the company's share of the desktop market has remained insignificant. According to the most recent data from Web metrics company Net Applications, Opera accounted for 0.72 per cent, a number it's hovered near for the past year.

The company's gotten more attention lately as the instigator of the complaint against Microsoft that led to European Union antitrust regulators charging the U.S. firm with illegally bundling its Internet Explorer with Windows. That case, and the fear of a possible order that could force it to offer rivals' browsers, prompted Microsoft last week to announce it would strip IE8 from Windows 7 when it released the new OS in Europe this October.

Opera Unite is available as a free download for Windows, Mac and Linux from the Opera site. The company will extend the platform to its mobile browser, where it enjoys considerably more success than on the desktop, in the future.

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Gregg Keizer

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