Opera hoping to reinvent the Web by making browser a server

Opera logoOpera has taken the wraps off a new service called Opera Unite, which allows users to transform their personal computer into a Web-connected media and information sharing service. Opera Unite is part of the latest beta version of the Opera 10 browser, and allows inventive Web developers to create just about any Web app they can imagine, and then enables users to host the app themselves.

Opera Unite basically turns your personal computer into an ad-hoc Web server. Various "services" can be loaded and activated via the browser, allowing your machine to share files with friends, stream MP3s, or even serve a full website. One service, Photo Sharing, lets you simply point to a folder full of photos on your own hard drive and serve them as an online photo gallery.

"Today, we are opening the full potential of the Web for everyone," said Jon von Tetzchner, Opera CEO, in a statement. "With server capability in the browser, Web developers can create Web applications with profound ease. Consumers have the flexibility to choose private and efficient ways of sharing information."

We took Opera United for a quick spin, and it is remarkably easy to set up. First, you need the latest beta build of Opera, which has the feature included. Once launched, clicking a small button in the lower left corner activates Unite. From there, everything is configured via a Unite panel. If you don't already have an Opera ID, a form comes up to sign up for one. Then you are given the option to name your machine. After those steps, which took all of about two minutes, your machine can be accessed with a clever URL scheme: with Opera Unite running on my MacBook, the URL is http://macbook.foresmac.operaunite.com.

Opera Unite File Sharing

Each service can be activated separately, so you only have to run whatever services you're interested in. The six included services are File Sharing, the Fridge, Media Player, Photo Sharing, The Lounge, and Web Server. File Sharing and Web Server are pretty self-explanitory, and the aforementioned Photo Sharing creates online galleries. Fridge is a virtual refrigerator where friends can leave a note via a virtual stickie, and Media Player streams music files. The Lounge creates a chat room that you can host from your own computer.

All the services, save the Fridge, have access controls that give you the option of making the service open to anyone, accessible only to those with a password, or private—accessible only to the user. For instance, you might not want to open your machine to let the entire world stream your music collection, but you might want to be able to stream those files from, say, your office. Each service gets its own URL, so to see someone's Fridge, for instance, the URL is http://machine_name.opera_id.operaunite.com/fridge. And setting up the File Sharing, Media Player, Photo Sharing, and Web Server services was as simple as pointing it to a particular folder to use as source material.

Opera Unite will use UPnP to open the correct ports in your broadband router, so you don't have to worry about setting up port-forwarding and configuring a NAT. And Opera's servers act as a proxy, enabling a layer of security—an important consideration when you're opening up your personal machine to the entire Web. After a few minutes of configuring the services, I had several friends trying out the different services. "It's weird having you watch me while listening to your music," one friend joked while streaming some of my A Tribe Called Quest tracks.

After getting everything running, though, there were some issues that didn't quite make it a seamless experience. Unsurprisingly, speed was an issue. Even with a mid-tier cable broadband connection, and my MacBook's CPU staying relatively idle, many of the services loaded slowly. Often, some of the small preview images generated by the Photo Sharing service wouldn't load, and the ones that did were heavily compressed. The Media Player service will only load MP3 files, not the AAC files that the majority of my iTunes library is filled with. And, with the help of several friends, I discovered that streaming would only work with Opera and the latest betas of Camino and Firefox. The latest Safari and Mobile Safari won't work, so no streaming to your iPhone. And using a special URL which includes the password for protected services doesn't work with all browsers, some of which require entering the password manually.

The good news is that Opera has a Unite API, so developers—or even "enthusiasts with a little standards savvy," said evangelist and Web developer Molly Holzschlag—can design new services using JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. Once uploaded to the Unite website, users can download them and add them to their Unite setup. So it should be relatively trivial for someone to come up with new services that can improve on any shortcomings. Opera already has a pretty complete primer to get developers up to speed, as well as a templating library for developers to use in their projects.

Savvy developers could obviously configure their own server on a spare machine, or even set up an account with a Web hosting service and do all of the things that Opera Unite can do. In many cases, that might even be a better solution. But for small needs, or just having complete control over how and what gets served that a mere mortal can set up, I've never seen anything that compares to Opera Unite.

"Our computers are only dumb terminals connected to other computers (meaning servers) owned by other people — such as large corporations — who we depend upon to host our words, thoughts, and images," wrote Lawerence Eng, Product Analyst for Opera, about the thinking behind Unite. "We depend on them to do it well and with our best interests at heart. We place our trust in these third parties, and we hope for the best, but as long as our own computers are not first class citizens on the Web, we are merely tenants, and hosting companies are the landlords of the Internet."

So, Opera Unite is intended to change that equation by turning every personal computer into a Web server, effectively "socializing" how Web content is stored and served. Opera sees the technology as empowering everyone with a computer to be the complete masters of their domain (pardon the pun), so instead of being beholden to hosting companies, or forcing their content to fit the likes of Facebook or Myspace, anyone that can launch a browser and click a mouse can do so. The concept is an ambitious one, and Opera Unite seems like it is off to an solid start in the right direction.

Source: Ars Technica

Tags: browsers, Opera

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