Norwegian browser maker Opera may not be quite a (North American) household name yet, but it has had a significant influence on pushing web standards and new browser technologies (i.e. tabs), thus affecting even those using good old-fashioned Internet Explorer.
Opera's Biggest Past Obstacle -- Lack of Extensions
One perpetual criticism of Opera's browser for personal computers is its lack of extensions. While Opera beats Mozilla in speed and offers some unique features, many consider Mozilla's extensions -- like ad blocking -- too valuable to make the switch.
This common sentiment is summed up by DailyTech commenter omnicronx, who complains, "FF was built as an extendable platform, it was designed that way. That being said, while Opera may include those features, they are definitely lacking compared to Firefox extensions."
But Opera spokesperson Thomas Ford tells us that Opera 11, the company's next upcoming major release, will fully support extensions for the first time. Much like Chrome, which recently added extensions, this new addition will take time to mature, so don't expect a full stable of extensions like Mozilla's right out of the gate.
Many users of rival browsers often think Opera "lacks" certain features, available in Mozilla and other browsers via extensions. Much of that lack may merely be in perception. Opera is packed with features, but many are hidden and require you to learn and read tutorials in order to full use them (e.g. the browser has built in ad-blocking, something most don't know). In this sense Opera hand's the user a very full box of tools, but the average users doesn't know what's in the box.
With an extensions system the user actively picks up tools and adds them to the box. As they're doing this, they typically learn how to use these new features. Thus the user knows how to fully use more useful browser features -- the optimal situation.
Now Opera is finally implementing the latter approach.
Chrome and Opera share many similarities. Both have a relatively clean interface and both commonly vie for the number one spot in speed. Chrome's market share has almost doubled from 6.04 percent to 11.54 percent since it adopted extensions in January, according to market analytics firm StatCounter. Of course, part of this is due to Google's distribution channels, which are second to none on the market except Microsoft's (who publishes the market share leading Internet Explorer). Nonetheless, extensions likely played a substantial role in these gains.
However, you can probably expect the most popular extensions with Firefox -- i.e., basic script and ad-blocking extensions -- to be available when Opera 11 is officially released. Mr. Ford tells us that, "[Opera] will actively pursue contacting the developers of popular extensions."
Thus it is expected that many of the most popular Firefox content-blocking extensions -- NoScript, etc. will likely come in full form to Opera. Again, many of these extensions -- script-blocking, ad-blocking echo features already built into the browser.
Mr. Teigene had a good sense of humor about this, quipping that the Opera team could perhaps turn many of the browser's features into extensions and that users would then enjoy them more fully. While he may have meant the comment in jest, we actually believe that this is a very good idea for Opera to consider, based on the discoverability reasons outlined above which extensions provide.
Opera 11's first alpha build will launch to the public in the next couple weeks, at the latest, said its spokesperson. That build will show up here.
Launching alongside it, with be Opera's extensions homepage, simply dubbed "Opera Extensions". Mr. Teigene tells us that the company will post that link when the alpha launches.
Details for developers will pop up here when the build goes live.
Opera believes the web language-based approach is inherently more secure than XUL. Mr. Teigene also assures users that every extension will be tested and cleared by Opera before it is published on the Opera Extensions catalog. This should help with security and help avoid the kinds of issues that Mozilla has encountered with malicious extensions.
Mobile Platforms -- Android Gets Opera Mobile, iPhone Gets Upgraded Mini
Opera also spoke with us about mobile platforms. Alongside the news of extensions, the browser maker announced that it would be releasing a beta of Opera Mobile for Google's Android operating system. Android users currently only have access to Opera Mini.
The Android beta will be due out by the end of November. Users can pick it up either on m.opera.com or the Android Market.
Another piece of good news is that Opera is going to update both its Mini and Mobile browsers to offer full pinch zoom on both the iPhone and Android. Currently only two zoom levels are supported -- text zoom and page width zoom. With the new option it should be easier to naturally navigate pages, much like you would with Apple and Google's respect built-in web browsers.
But Opera's mobile browsers enjoy a distinct advantage over Google and Apple's mobile browsers in that they offer a mature compression technology that loads pages faster. On the PC page loads have become fast enough that the average user somewhat takes them for granted, but on the smart phone load times are still a significant concern.
Opera's cross-platform support has helped it become the clear leader in mobile browser market share. According to StatCounter Opera's browsers are by far the most used on the mobile market, accounting for almost 25 percent of the market, while Nokia, Apple, and Research in Motion (makers of the BlackBerry smart phone) are roughly tied in second place with around 17 percent market share.
Apple recently allowed Opera Mini into its "magical" kingdom, and the browser is now available on the App Store for use with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. Opera has not announced whether it will port Opera Mobile to the iPhone, but this seems a likely possibility at some point, should Apple allow it (the Cupertino electronics firm might get spooked by the prospect of Opera's more full featured mobile browser competing with its mobile Safari browser).
Clearly Opera is doing much better in the mobile sphere than in the PC sphere, so it definitely is committed to maintaining this strong performance.
We asked Mr. Teigene if Opera extensions would be coming to Opera Mobile (as this is part of the appeal of Mozilla's Fennec browser, which is currently in beta on Android). He said he had nothing to comment about that at present, but to watch Opera's page for future updates -- so we'll take that as "yes" Opera is going to do this, but "no" they don't want to show their hand on when.