It should come as no surprise to anyone that the folks that developed the Opera browser have been hard at work on something new and different. After all, IE, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari pretty much have innovation in the pure browser space covered.
Last week, Opera Software announced the result of that effort – a browser based collaboration platform called Opera Unite. Here is the video they put together to introduce their new offering:
I’m really torn about Unite. While I’m a big proponent of seeing choice, capability, and control pushed out to the edge of the web, I’m just not sure how well Unite will be able to deliver on this promise in practical terms.
First, there are three big marketplace trends that are riding against this.
- The growing acceptance of cloud based services. Web email is the best example of this. Almost everyone I know is comfortable with having a web based email address. It’s not that they don’t understand the level of personal information that gets communicated via email, they simply find it to be the most efficient way for them to integrate what they see as a “must have” capability. But even beyond email, the continued growth of services like Facebook and LinkedIn speaks to the markets’ acceptance of using intermediary service providers to deliver a broad range of socially anchored functionality. This is not a trend I see reversing any time soon, so selling against it may fail to resonate with most people.
- Mobile computing has become mainstream. While there may be “always on” broadband Internet connectivity running to many homes globally, there is typically not an equivalent ‘always on’ computer sitting behind it. For most people, the only device they keep on all the time is an iPhone or Blackberry. And with a growing consumer preference for laptops over desktops, there may not even be a computer in the house most times. If a model for sharing demands coordination – requiring people to be online at the same time – it creates a barrier to adoption. This will be a big challenge for Unite to get past.
- Search is the dominant way to navigate the web. Most people today struggle with the volume of content available to them that they need to deal with. Web search is one of the key tools they use to discover, sort through, and manage it. And while search engines do a pretty good job crawling the public web, they have no way of crawling the ‘deep web’ – the private servers that live behind firewalls or have passwords. And this presents a unique problem for Unite users. While Unite does allow for sharing content at a ‘public’ level, one of it’s key value propositions is that it also lets people control access to more specific content they may have. The implication here is that these “access controlled” items won’t be discoverable via the normal search tools most people use – even if they have the rights to access them. And given the way things work in practice, if someone can’t find something on Google, to them it doesn’t exist.
These trends tap in to the way people work and interact with technology. Overcoming them will require Unite to deliver something so compelling and unique that people would be willing to go out of their way to adopt it. Any hope for that would most likely to come in the form of applications people develop on the Unite platform.
And that is a tough position for Opera to be in.
On top of that, there are also a few significant technical issues that can weigh on adoption of an offering like Unite. The two biggest ones I see are in architecture and security:
- There is still a middleman. From what I can tell, Unite isn’t a hubless P2P service architecture. While files are not stored on a centralized server, Opera still controls all of the routing in the service. The only way anyone can connect to a peer is via a subdomain that needs to be resolved through Opera’s local DNS servers. This means that governmental agencies that wish to limit free speech and access to peers will only need to subvert access to a single domain to shut the network down.
- Security is light weight. Running a web server on a computer creates a much broader surface area for attack. Unlike sharing that takes place in a cloud computing model, outside people will be connecting directly to your computer and reading files directly off your hard drive. Given the vulnerabilities that have been found to exist even in more mature web connected software, I would not be comfortable placing a new release like this on any system that contained confidential files, passwords, etc. It would be terrible to have your hard drive wiped. It would be even worse to have your identity stolen. It’s unfortunate, but this is the kind of world we live in.
With all of this said, I really do like the concept being promoted by Opera Unite. True edge based connectivity has the potential to change the nature of many things we do on the web. Creating a common platform for social applications is also a compelling concept. Unfortunately, it think these ambitious goals are simply too big for any single company to take on alone.
For Unite to be successful on a broad level, I think that Opera will need to make it open source, and let the market work through the myriad issues that would have otherwise conspired to thwart a single vendor approach. Alternatively, they could package it as an internal corporate collaboration solution, and develop a more conventional business model around selling it.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Opera Software isn’t planing on doing either of these things. And while I would love to see a positive outcome for Unite, I just don’t see success coming from the path they are on.