Chicago (IL) - Pushing a web browser into a crowded market that is dominated by Apple-, Mozilla- and Microsoft-branded browsers and sustain a certain traction is difficult. Just ask Google whose Chrome currently holds less than 1% market share after an initial surge. But the small Norwegian software developer Opera Software has been releasing Opera for desktop and mobile platforms for years, despite the fact that it probably has much less market share than it deserves and does not get enough credit for innovations and features it delivers. Opera 9.6 Beta 1 was recently released and shows that it is a serious contender.
As the browser war is heating up once more, the major developers are prepping new versions of their browsers: All eyes are on the next betas of Safari 4, Firefox 3.1, Chrome and IE8. Opera is typically absent from that list, not because it does not have a current browser, but because it lacks substantial market share and, let’s be honest, a big brand.
Opera has always been praised as being an extremely efficient, innovative and feature-rich browser. As a matter of fact, competing browsers integrated many attractive features from Opera such as true page zooming in Firefox 3 or a new tab layout in Chrome that mimics Opera's "Speed Dialing" feature. Opera also has exclusive features, like convenient mouse gestures and the finely graded privacy and security-related controls.
Opera is already second-best in Acid3 benchmark testing, which that determines how well a web browser follows web standards and how fast and precise it renders web pages. Opera scored 85 points in the Acid3 test and the Presto engine came out one point short of 100, just behind Safari 4 and ahead of IE8 and Firefox 3. Besides the speed improvements, Opera 9.6 offers number of new features - like feed preview, follow and ignore threads, low bandwidth mode and link it.
When you click on a RSS/Atom feed in Opera 9.6, a clean and crisp two-column feed preview appears. This makes it easier to see a feed's content before subscribing to it or simply quickly glance the new content in a page. Online syncing has always been one of Opera's advantages over competing browsers and it has been tweaked in version 9.6: In addition to bookmarks, speed dial, personal bar, and notes, you can now sync your custom search engines and typed history (the one that is explicitly typed or selected from the address bar) with the cloud. This means that any website address you typed one one computer will be available with all other computers as well.
Opera's email client is improved with new threads options and low bandwidth mode. The latter enables faster email checking when your bandwidth is limited. It works by reducing data downloads as much as possible so that email checking goes smoother. When operating in low bandwidth mode, Opera will not fetch message attachments in IMAP accounts unless requested and will only synchronize new messages. For POP accounts, this means that Opera will not grab more than the first 100 lines of a message unless requested.
Email discussions can be easily tracked by right-clicking on a particular email and selecting “Follow thread”. From there on, all related email messages will appear under the Followed Thread view in the Mail panel.
With a quick look at the competition, we are awaiting another Microsoft IE8 beta or even an RC1 release before the end of the year. Apple is busy getting Safari 4 out the door and Mozilla is working on Firefox 3.1. Mozilla’s “chief lizard wrangler” Mitchell Baker seems to currently wrangling with a “disconnect” with readers of her blog, in which she recently stated that one of Mozilla’s browser ideas involves “a need to make basic, aggregate, anonymized information about Internet usage more widely available.” Privacy concerns surfaced almost immediately, but Baker stated that this new approach does not mean that Firefox will begin tracking user behavior: “The kind of data I’m trying to talk about is more like census-data: how many people are using the Internet; what are the broad patterns of Internet development and usage. In our physical lives, the basic demographics of our population collected in a census are a valuable shared resource. In understanding the Internet aggregate, anonymized, server-side census-like data can also be a valuable public resource,” Baker wrote.