Reviews: The little browser that could

Move over Microsoft and Netscape -- opera is coming to town.

By Paul Bissex
Published April 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

To call it a David and Goliath scenario is optimistic. Opera Software, an unknown Norwegian company with only 11 employees, has pitted itself against Microsoft and Netscape in the Web browser wars. But the upstart's only weapon is a browser that lacks support for several key Web standards and costs $35 more than its free competition.

How can they hope to survive? Then again, who in 1994 thought that a little program called Netscape Navigator would make 23-year-old Marc Andreessen a multimillionaire? Opera Software's founders, Geir Ivarsxy and Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner, may never make the cover of Business Week (as Andreessen did recently) or get big enough for an antitrust suit. But their lean and fast Web client is generating a well-deserved underground buzz.

Much of the fuss centers around what Opera is not. It's not an umpteen-megabyte, all-night download. It doesn't try to take over your desktop. It doesn't require exorbitant amounts of memory or hard drive space or even the latest operating system. The developers proudly claim that Opera will run on a 386 computer with 8 megabytes of RAM -- a cutting-edge system circa 1988.

As for what it is, it's fast, from top to bottom. I had Opera downloaded, installed and running in five minutes. It requires less than 2 megabytes of disk space and launches quickly. There's hardly a window or dialog box in Opera that feels even slightly sluggish, and nearly every feature of the program can be controlled from the keyboard for those of us who feel slowed down by the mouse.

Opera is extremely customizable -- a fact its creators emphasize by reminding you how easy it is to disable flashy features. Another time-saver feature unique to Opera is the ability to preserve the virtual workspace between sessions. If at the end of the day you are midway through a project and have 10 browser windows open, don't worry -- the next morning, Opera can pick up exactly where you left off.

Despite the emphasis on leanness, Opera can easily be fattened up with standard Netscape-compatible software plug-ins; this levels the playing field considerably, since it allows support of popular multimedia enhancements like RealAudio, RealVideo and Shockwave without requiring additional work from the small team at Opera Software.

The interface does have its rough edges. Security alerts lack the handy "Don't Warn Me Again" option present in other browsers. A few icons are nearly indecipherable and the help documents are written in charming but sometimes perplexing translation. And while configurability is great for gearheads, not everyone wants limitless choice at all times. The sheer number of options in Opera is daunting -- there are no fewer than 17 distinct dialog windows for setting preferences. A novice could easily change something significant and forget how to change it back.

For most users, however, the main obstacle holding them back from rushing to Opera right now -- aside from its price -- is its lack of support for advanced Web technologies like the Java programming language and Microsoft's ActiveX. But the developers promise that the next version of Opera 4.0 will enable Java, as well as include a full-featured e-mail program.

But as Opera's feature list grows, will it lose its uniqueness? Can its developers add support for popular features without making their product as bloated and slow as those they have so effectively positioned themselves against? Will Opera be different enough to get people to pay $35 for it?

The developers think so. Opera is designed for sheer utility, and appreciation for that attitude drives Opera's mounting popularity. Even Netscape's move to make its browser free seems to have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the Opera faithful. Market pressure on the little company will only increase, though, so a lot is riding on the reception of the next version. Here's hoping that Opera 4.0 is not this ensemble's finale.

Paul Bissex

Paul Bissex is a writer and Web consultant living in Northampton, Mass.

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