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Opera Kicks It Up A Notch With Unite

Opera has stepped up the browser heat with Unite. The fledgling technology launched on top of the Opera 10 beta is an interesting collaboration tool that might just change the way users look at the Web browser.

A few weeks ago I took Opera 10 beta for a test drive to see if the Opera folks had a shot at claiming serious share on the desktop. While Opera 10 is the best Opera release yet, it didn’t seem to have any killer features that would drive adoption. Last week, Opera pulled the other one and released Opera Unite: the killer feature that might put Opera over the top.

What the Hell is Unite?

Opera Unite is a feature within Opera to share content and run services within Opera so users don’t need to run their own Web servers or use third-party services to allow them to share content like music or pictures.

So, what can you do with Unite? By default, Unite ships with several services: File sharing, media player, photo sharing, a Web server, a chat “lounge,” and a “fridge” for friends to leave notes on.

I installed Unite on an openSUSE 11.1 laptop and started poking at the various services with my younger brother, who was running Unite on Windows XP. It took about five minutes for him to download, install, and start using Opera 10 with Unite. Not too shabby, and that bodes well for its adoption with less technical users.

One note, Unite requires an account with Opera, so if you don’t already have an account with Opera you’ll need to sign up for one when you fire up Unite.

The Unite Experience

Generally, Unite is easy to set up and work with. I was chatting in The Lounge in short order, and was able to set up an Opera-based Web server in just a few minutes.

But, when you boil it down, The Lounge is just another chat room and really not all that superior to just using Jabber or Google Talk. So, this doesn’t make a major impression on me. Good demo, but not a lot of demand for yet another chat service.

The Fridge, which allows users to leave notes for you, presumably while you’re away, is entirely too cutesy in execution. You can increase the capacity for notes, but you can’t do anything about the theme or annoying font that Opera has picked for the Post-It notes. Also, one flaw — as far as I can tell, one has to keep Opera Unite running at all times for other users to connect. So, if I’m gone and my computer is turned off — which is precisely when someone might get the most value out of being able to leave me a note — they can’t reach the service.

I’ve also had some firewall issues, and an inability to connect to some instances of Unite over the Internet. Not sure whose firewall is at fault, and the troubleshooting docs are slim at the moment. Also, you’re going to be bound by the upload speeds of your friends, so if you’re trying to collaborate with someone over a laggy connection, you might not have the best experience.

Overall, Unite seems like a pretty nifty service out of the box — but the default apps are, at least in theory, just scraping the surface. I’m intrigued, but not quite ready to dump Firefox to make use of Unite. But this could be the first step of Opera turning its browser into a lightweight collaboration tool for home and small business users. Whether things trend in that direction depends entirely on developers.

The really interesting thing about Unite is that Opera is providing an API for developers to create their own services on top of Opera. So, in theory, we should start seeing all kinds of interesting services written for Unite.

But Opera would really be helping users if they could offer some sort of persistance when they’re not logged in. Obviously, this is tricky with file sharing — and potentially legally troublesome if you’re talking about music files. But at least something like The Fridge would benefit from some persistance while users are away from their computers and/or the computer is shut down.

The developer docs are pretty straightforward. Developers can use JavaScript to extend Unite and offer new services on top of the API.

So far I haven’t seen any non-Opera contributed services, so it’s hard to say whether this is going to take off. The docs indicate that Opera is going to be reviewing the contributed services, so there may be some lag between release and reviewed applications appearing on Opera’s site.

Unite is an interesting, if not fully baked, technology. It’s a great vision, but the execution so far is only so-so. If Opera can tighten up the implementation in Opera 10 and convince developers to jump on its APIs and create additional features for Unite, it has a lot of potential.

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