Singing praises of free Opera

Opera Software's tactic of giving away its latest internet browser for Windows seems to be paying off. Since the move in early December, the company claims to have shifted two million copies of its self-named pencil-thin browser.

Opera Software’s tactic of giving away its latest internet browser for Windows seems to be paying off. Since the move in early December, the Finnish company claims to have shifted two million copies of its self-named pencil-thin browser (2.5MB without full Java).

Until version 5, which is to come out for Linux, EPOC (Psion), Mac and BeOS operating systems in future, users had to pay $US35 (though it was free as a 30-day trial). I know, I was one.

IT managers would understandably be wondering why anyone would pay for a browser when there are two perfectly serviceable free ones being offered by software giants Netscape (version 6 its latest) and Microsoft (Internet Explorer 5.5 its latest). That's especially so when the latter in its various iterations is said to now command 80% of the market.

Well, some companies are attempting to avoid the bloat of the two mainstream browsers, both of which consume at least 20MB of hard disk space and, in the case of IE5.5, some 60MB on my work desktop. Also, Opera will run on very old, memory-challenged machines – and handhelds – a bonus for penny-watching companies. Other users – some 1.5 million in Opera’s case – have invested earlier in the software (the company has been around six years) and want to keep the desktop standard. Of course, some refuseniks go out of their way to back minority products, such as Opera or Sutton Designs’ Enigma browser, often because of their start-up technical innovation and fresh approach. Personally, I just like its speed to load and run and the thoughtful interface.

By making the browser free – or as free as providing a permanent space for advertisements unless you pay $US39 – Opera is taking a gamble that it will attract enough users to placate advertisers and offset the loss in funds from subscriptions. But a base user group of over two million gives the company improved marketing and product development opportunities.

So what’s new and good about Opera 5? As other browsers now do, Opera automatically updates the Hotlist of bookmarks from previous versions. Opera has added a built-in email client and instant messaging support through an ICQ back-end to 5.0, though some users have reported irritation with the ICQ implementation and suggest using the regular client. You can sign on for a free OperaMail account that uses a web-based interface or POP your email directly into Opera, though the mail client doesn’t support IMAP and LDAP. The newsgroup function is also limited; the fast, clean browser is definitely the best feature of the program.

Multiple windows are now displayed – a standout feature – as tabs rather than the old feature of being accessible through the “Window” menu. These can be moved to any edge of the screen. As with previous versions, Opera 5 allows lots of single key commands, such as toggling graphics on and off with “g” or returning to a previous page with a “z”. Opera in general is far more geek-friendly, allowing users to micro-manage preferences. It has plenty of other catchy features, such as being able to store the complete page in its cache, so you can exit and open the site later. I should note that version 3.62 crashed on me reasonably frequently, particularly when exiting, though 5 is so far much more stable.

On the downside, it doesn't auto-prefix/suffix www. and .com like IE and doesn't share its cache or history with other browsers, though it is vigilant about reporting odd security goings-on and dodgy cookies. The old versions of Opera didn’t like ActiveX or sites designed primarily for IE, though Opera 5 is improved on this front. Java, Shockwave and Flash plug-ins are available, though you may still have problems with some sites. A free fully enabled Java version is offered, but its 9.5MB may strain some 56Kbit/s connections. Some commentators have recommended the Java version for developers or those who visit Java-heavy sites, though I’ve got by lazily with a Java-free version 3.62 for a couple of years. Several developers online publicly praised its support of the latest HTML, XML and cascading style sheet standards, useful for testing sites for standards compliance.

Download from www.opera.com. Version 5.01 is free; users pay $US39 to get rid of the ads and $US15 to upgrade to an ad-free version.

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