Opera Unite: The real plan is to put software in control again

Online services are disintermediating traditional apps. Opera hopes to use social networking as a Trojan horse to put traditional apps back in charge

The folks at Opera Software would like you to believe that Opera Unite, a new, experimental feature set for its Opera browser product, has "reinvented the Web." The company's breathy, gushing press release is truly remarkable spin, even by the standards of dot-com PR. But the way I see it, Opera Unite is hardly game-changing; rather, it's a Hail Mary bid for Opera to stay in the game -- in more ways than one.

That Opera is still around is impressive, in and of itself. It takes guts to offer a proprietary, closed source browser in this market, where the competition consists of one of the most successful open source projects ever, two of the most powerful companies in the computer industry (Microsoft and Google), and Apple. Still, Opera's strong support for open Web standards has won favor with many developers, and its early focus on browsers for mobile handsets was prescient, to say the least.

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The value of this new initiative, however, is harder to see -- which might explain the hype overload. The short description just sounds weird: Opera Unite is a Web server on the Web browser. Ignoring for the moment that this isn't really groundbreaking -- even some vending machines have Web servers on them these days -- why on Earth would anyone want that?

The browser gets social
Digging deeper, it becomes clear that the real appeal of Opera Unite lies not in the embedded Web server itself, but in the additional features Opera has built on top of it. Although it can host your Web sites, Opera Unite also offers peer-to-peer file sharing, chat, a media player, photo sharing, and a "fridge" on which users can leave each other notes, among other features. It's not so much about Web publishing as it is about collaboration.

Are we stunned senseless yet? You old-timers will be forgiven for thinking this sounds like little more than an effort to kick-start what Tim Berners-Lee was calling "the read/write Web" years ago. Newbies, on the other hand, will doubtless be reminded of something else: This is all the stuff you get from social networks like Facebook and MySpace, only now it's baked into the browser itself, rather than hosted on the Web.

As the old saying goes, when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Opera -- a desktop software company -- sees desktop software as the best way to serve the public's demand for social media.

But someone once told me that if, say, you want to write novels, it's not enough to be as good as Stephen King. We already have a Stephen King, and if someone wants a Stephen King book, they'll buy one of his. If you want to succeed, you have to be better than Stephen King -- and if that's too daunting for you, you're in the wrong business. So what does Opera Unite do that will win users away from the existing social networks they already know and love?

I won't leave you hanging on that one: I have no idea. But it doesn't surprise me that Opera would want to try something like this. The stakes are simply too high.

Reintermediating the Internet
Remember back in the old days, when you used lots of different software? You had an e-mail client for sending e-mails and an IM client for when you wanted to chat. Inviting a few friends to a party probably meant a mass e-mail, and if you wanted to share your vacation snaps you might have actually had some friends over for dinner and forced them to suffer through a slideshow.

Today, the Web has taken over all of these activities. You can do all of the above with just one piece of software -- a Web browser -- and in many cases the Web UI is more efficient than the old way.

The upshot is that Web companies have inserted themselves as intermediaries into processes that never needed intermediaries before. Once, I would have fired up my e-mail client to send an e-mail. Today I let Google handle that function for me as a service -- and in return, I become a revenue stream for Google, thanks to AdWords. When I post a photo to Flickr or organize an event with Evite, same deal. I could still do things the old way, but the Web-based services are compelling enough that I don't bother.

This is where the real money is. Over at the Coding Horror blog, Jeff Atwood points out how URL shortening services are "destroying the Web" by inserting themselves as intermediaries in the simple act of pulling up a Web site in your browser. Users already know what they want to do online; the trick is to make sure they have to go through you to do it.

So where does that leave software vendors like Opera? On the one hand, Opera seems like it's in a good position, because it offers the one type of software that nobody can live without any longer. On the other hand, the Opera browser's aforementioned adherence to standards means it runs the risk of essentially becoming a commodity product. When all browsers render pages the same, who cares which one you use?

That's where Opera Unite comes in. It's more than just extra features that other browsers don't have. Although Opera Unite claims to "directly link people's personal computers together," to use it you need an account on Opera's servers, and all of your exchanges pass through Opera's servers first. That's an effective way to get around technical difficulties like NAT firewalls, but more important, it makes Opera the intermediary in your social interactions -- not Facebook, not MySpace, but Opera.

Is this the future of the software industry -- where everything is a service and software is just a means to facilitate more services? I hope not, but the battle lines appear to be drawn. If software vendors don't become the intermediaries then the Web companies surely will -- so software vendors had better get cracking.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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