Opera Unite Seeks to Decentralize the Web

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Opera UniteOpera Software has just released the latest beta of Opera 10, along with a micro site showcasing the new (alpha) Opera Unite technology that seeks to enable peer-to-peer networking for browser-based applications. In a detailed blog post regarding the release, Opera Software product analyst Lawrence Eng explains how Opera 10 can turn any computer or device into a server, enabling applications running on the platform to communicate directly with another web user (presumably also running Opera 10).

With Opera Unite, developers will create applications — or Opera Unite Services — which run in the end-user’s browser, connect directly to other computers, and share data. Sample scenarios outlined by Eng include media sharing, instant communication, and anything in a “class of social software on the web.” The end goal suggested in Eng’s announcement includes restoring power to end-users to communicate with each other, using their own infrastructure (personal computers, residential internet connections etc.).

In an article on Dev.Opera, Chris Mills explains how to get up and running with the latest Opera Unite build. Mills offers a fairly concise description for Opera Unite — “a collaborative technology that uses a compact server inside [Opera] to share data and services.”

As Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft seek to create centralized platforms and capture mindshare, Opera Unite aims to steer the web away from a centrally-managed architecture run by “computers with more power than the rest” (servers). Opera believes that a new set of opportunities exists where servers are not required and applications can communicate directly with peer systems. Should Opera succeed, this would strike at the heart of user-driven content sites, many of which rely on users sharing media with a select group of friends for traffic. Interestingly, Opera Unite seems to make no attempt to challenge fundamentally centralised systems, such as search engines, nor does it attempt to replace online communities that thrive on sharing content to a general audience (YouTube, anyone?).

A quick run through of Opera Unite is promising — a wizard in the Opera 10 beta (available under the Tools menu) takes the user through the process of creating an account, and helpfully offers to attempt to configure UPnP (no port forwarding instructions in sight — the system is clearly optimized for as little configuration as possible). Once set up, the Opera Unite sidebar appears, and a list of default services is available.

Enabling the file sharing application, for example, adds a File Sharing entry to a list of available services on a public URL (generally http://(computer name).(Opera username).operaunite.com). This public URL represents a landing page of sorts for the user, and Opera suggests this is served from the end-user’s machine, although the hostname of the public URL resolves to an Opera server. Additionally, while any browser can be used to browse available content, it appears that Opera Unite is required to actually access content, e.g. download shared files.

The initial release feels extremely stable, although Opera emphasizes that the Unite technology is still in alpha, and there will undoubtedly be challenges with complex networking environments (NAT, no UPnP etc.) for which the technology is yet to be battle-tested. Builds are available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X.

Download Opera Unite and let us know what you think.

Akash MehtaAkash Mehta
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Akash Mehta is a web developer and freelance writer specializing in web application development.

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