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23 June 2009

Opera Unite - Dawn of a new era?

By Andrew Clifford

Although still in its infancy, Opera Unite could start a big shift in how we use IT.

Some years ago, I wrote about a second PC revolution in which PC users create outward-facing services and offer them to the world as easily as they currently create spreadsheets.

That vision has come one step closer with Opera Unite.

Opera Unite, currently in beta testing, is an add-in to version 10 of the Opera browser. It allows you to serve web-based applications from your PC to anyone on the Internet, or your colleague at the next desk, whatever browser they run. It currently supports only a handful of services such as a web server, file sharing, media player and chat. New services can be written in JavaScript. Opera hosts a site for users to upload and share services.

Opera handles the networking. Instead of other people accessing your PC directly, they access a public URL (something like http://computer.yourname.operaunite.com/web_server), which the Opera servers then forward to your PC. You can use the service to run web-based applications without configuring servers, domain names and firewalls, even from behind a corporate firewall.

From our technical perspective, it's easy to dismiss Opera Unite. It isn't hard to set up a web server on a PC, or to use an addressing service such as DynDNS.com to provide an address to it. And of course running web applications from inside a browser on a PC is architecturally inept.

But we dismiss this new direction at our peril. There are many reasons why Opera Unite is significant:

  • Don't underestimate the barriers to setting up outward-facing services: technical knowledge, permissions, fear of looking silly, the IT department's work request processes. Opera Unite does away with all of this, and could unleash a flood of suppressed demand for IT.
  • People like having their own stuff. There are lots of social websites and hosted business services where people can share things, but there is something deeply ingrained about having things under our complete control. It is one of the reasons PCs are so popular.
  • The installable service model could grow hugely. There has a been a lot of interest in Apple iPhone applications and in Facebook applications. There could soon be a huge library of Opera Unite applications ready for anyone to run and offer to the world. (A good starting point would be services which allow collaboration on office documents.)
  • The networking is significant. Anyone with Opera Unite can set up a file share or website to colleagues and contacts within or beyond the organisation. It will be easier to use Opera Unite than to follow the official procedures defined by the IT department.

If Opera Unite is successful, and if similar features are built in to more popular browsers, we in IT risk losing control as users abandon centrally controlled IT and take matters into their own hands. We can see this as a threat, or see this as an opportunity, but I do not think we should ignore it.

Next: Internet Explorer 8 - time to upgrade

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