Opera tries to Unite users across browsers

You wouldn't know it by eyeballing most of the latest browser news, but there is more to browsers than JavaScript speed. Opera's new Unite turns your browser into a Web server. Cloud, meet your client competition.

You wouldn't know it by eyeballing most of the latest browser news, but there is more to browsers than JavaScript speed. Mozilla introduced its add-on alternative called Jetpack, and on Tuesday Opera debuted Unite for Windows, Mac, and Linux, which turns your browser into a Web server and the Norwegian publisher hopes will "reinvent the Web."

That's fast become the browser equivalent of the cliched comic book tag, "In this issue: Everything Changes!" So United uses your browser as as Web server, but what does that mean?

The File Sharing interface in Opera Unite. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

"The initial applications offered by Opera Unite are just simple demos (such as a "messenger" application and a media player) that replicate existing services and online functionality, showing them working in the context of Opera Unite," wrote Lawrence Eng, a product analyst for Opera, on Opera's blog Tuesday morning. OK, so they're basic features, essentially still in beta and meant more to highlight what's possible than to actually offer strong experiences at the moment. Keeping that in mind, let's look at what's available and how they work.

Unite adds a tab to Opera's widget sidebar, and comes with six apps to share your content: File Sharing, a Fridge, Media Player, Photo Sharing, The Lounge, and Web server. Specific URL-based, most are self-explanatory. Two are not.

The Fridge is for note-sharing, kind of like Facebook's Wall but without the interactivity. Once you share your Fridge URL, users can write short messages and post them to your "fridge door." Messages must be short, although I couldn't determine a specific character-limit as there is on Twitter. The Fridge app also wouldn't work in Firefox 3.5 pre, although it functioned fine in Google Chrome.

The Lounge is an interactive chat room that you host on your computer. You can determine who gets to enter by sharing the URL, but if that's not private enough you can password-protect entry, as well. Where the utility of the Fridge escaped me, I can see a point to having a private, mobile, self-hosted chatroom.

The Web server is interesting, as well. Being able to host a Web page from your desktop computer, without having to worry about paying somebody for the privilege, has the potential to usher in a new age of Web hosting where the only cost is what you pay your ISP and there's no middle-man to go through. However, the most popular things to do online that require your own site--sharing media and writing blogs--can be done effectively and cheaply from third-party hosts. Still, Unite-based Web-serving has potential.

Access is granted on three levels: Public, Limited--which means password-protected, and Private. When you set an app to Limited, you're provided with a password that you can change, and then when you hit the e-mail button to share it the password gets appended to the end of the URL. When you customize a password, it can contain only alphanumeric characters--no exclamation points allowed. Clicking on the link automatically enters the credential. The transition from administrator setup to end-user e-mail was not only a smooth experience, but it involved a minimal number of steps.

What an end-user sees when they receive a link to a Unite media player. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

File Sharing and Photo Sharing are redundant services. They look the same, except that Photo Sharing presents files in a large-icon thumbnail format, and File Sharing shows a file tree with tiny, non-thumbnailed icons. The way that an administrator can adjust the access level granted doesn't vary from app to app, making for a consistent experience that potentially takes some of the edge off of the learning curve. Hopefully, this will remain as third-party developers build their own Unite apps.

The most useful of the apps is the Media Player, which lets you share music from your hard drive in a stripped-down but effective interface. Click on an artist's name to be taken to the album name, which requires another click to get to the songs. One final click will get the song playing. Not surprisingly, it's very much like a slightly visual file browser. However, like many of the apps, it doesn't work perfectly or at all, all of the time. Several of my CNET colleagues tested it with me, with decidedly mixed results.

I was able to stream music from one computer to a second one at my desk. Single-song playback worked well, but the row of buttons at the top--Autoplay, Shuffle, Repeat, Sort A-Z, and the search box--never functioned. The song playback doesn't automatically play songs in order--users will only get songs served up once, and then the player stops. One colleague could only view songs--playback never worked.

A broken image on the Unite landing page in Chrome. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Browser compatibility was inconsistent, as well. The media player wouldn't work in Google Chrome but functioned fine in Firefox 3.5 pre. The Fridge wouldn't work in Firefox, but did in Google Chrome.

The promise of user-shared content melded to Web 2.0 socialization is an interesting step to take, given the current development climate. The strongest point behind Unite is that it provides a socialization-ready widget platform, without forcing Opera to completely reinvent its browser. In today's blog post, Eng cited the potential for game development, and hinted that Unite will play a large role in the browser's future.

Unite tended to use a bit less than double the memory of the regular Opera 10 beta, about 140 MB compared with 88 MB.

For now, Unite is available only in a separate build from the main Opera 10 beta, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, but there are plans to eventually integrate the two. Whether Opera can motivate developers to take to it as Firefox developers have taken to that platform remains to be seen.