A significant update to the Opera browser's Speed Dial feature launched today in Opera 11.50 alpha (download), along with Opera Next, which includes a mechanism that makes it easier for Opera fans to automatically download under-construction builds of the browser. Opera Next will install separately and alongside the "stable" release of Opera, sporting a silver Opera logo much like Google Chrome Canary is visually distinct from the other versions of Chrome with its all-yellow icon.

Speed Dial extensions land in Opera 11.50 alpha, giving the feature more real-time functionality. (Credit: Opera)

The new version of Speed Dial introduces support for Speed Dial-specific extensions. Originally developed by Opera, and now in use in one form or another by Safari, Chrome, and Internet Explorer, Speed Dial collects your more frequently visited and most recently visited Web sites into a grid layout. The Norwegian browser maker expects developers to use the new extension support to add new functions to the feature, such as collating images from the Web, or real-time updates to social-networking sites, news sites, and the weather. The company said in a blog post announcing the feature that Speed Dial extensions will be available in the extensions catalog alongside other browser extensions, and will install in the same way.

Related stories
How to get Speed Dial in Firefox
IE9 passes Opera in browser usage

The new release paths available in Opera Next don't exactly replicate the tight release schedules that Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox now have, but Opera spokesman Thomas Ford did tell CNET in an e-mail that Opera is "moving faster," adding, "The Opera Next 'channel' if you will, does makes releases easier to get. You can auto-update to either alpha-beta-final, or you could subscribe to all the snapshots."

Using an option in opera:config, people who download Opera Next will be able to switch off the "snapshot" build at will, which is the least stable but most frequently updated build available. All updates, whether snapshot, alpha, beta, or final, will automatically update when the browser starts.

Browser developers unabashedly borrow development ideas from each other, but the news from Mozilla and now Opera that they will be pursuing release schedules closer to those of Google Chrome's six-week path has less precedent. Even Internet Explorer, formerly on a two-year release plan, has seen the benefits of faster major updates and is expected to push out major updates every year, give or take a few months.