The continued survival of the Opera Web browser is a bit of a mystery. Not only does it compete with a program, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, that is both pre-installed on most computers and free to download otherwise, this program also requires that you either pay up (a $39 registration fee) or put up with ads embedded in its interface.
Yet Opera (www.opera.com) has managed to draw a group of users who exhibit the sort of passionate loyalty not usually seen outside of Mac user groups.
Transcript: Rob Pegoraro was Live Online to answer questions about this column
Part of the reason may be that Opera was, for a long time, one of the only stable alternatives to IE. Part is likely due to its developers' inventive pursuit of new, more flexible browsing options. And part must be this program's speed and small size; it can be comfortably downloaded over dial-up.
Last week, Oslo-based Opera Software released version 7.5 of the browser -- now more of an Internet suite, since it also includes e-mail, address book, newsgroup, Internet Relay Chat and newsfeed-reader components -- for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, FreeBSD and Solaris.
Unlike three or four years ago, however, Opera's competition isn't just IE and a sickly, aging version of Netscape. The open-source Mozilla browser (www.mozilla.org), although bulkier and slower, offers many of the same features as Opera and costs nothing. Apple's Safari and a still-in-development Mozilla offshoot called Firefox are free as well, just as quick on their feet and dramatically simpler.
To its credit, Opera 7.5 offers much to like: The developers have put serious thought into the ways people browse the Web these days, and it shows in a set of features that are absent from other browsers or available only through separate add-ons.
For example, Opera's toolbar includes not just the canonical back and forward icons, but also rewind and fast-forward buttons. The rewind command works like Safari's snap-back function, returning you to the home page of a Web site you've waded deep into -- or to whatever page linked you to the current site -- while the fast-forward command whisks you to the next likely page, if Opera can deduce what that might be.
Like most non-IE browsers, Opera 7.5 supports tabbed browsing, in which multiple Web pages are displayed inside a single window. But it can also be set to keep all new pages inside that one frame, even if they're formatted to open in new windows. In addition, Opera lets you drag tabs left and right to rearrange their order. (This convenience, however, is undercut by the confusing way tabs narrow or widen based on each page's title.)
Opera enters saved site passwords with a click of a wand icon, and unlike some browsers it can store multiple log-ins for one page -- a handy option if, say, two people use Web-mail accounts at the same site.
People bothered by hard-to-read type on Web pages should try out Opera for its zoom command alone, which smoothly scales a page's text and images from 20 to 1,000 percent of their original size.
And people bothered by having to take a hand off the mouse will delight in Opera's "mouse gestures," simple combinations of clicks and cursor movements that issue common browsing commands.
Finally, Opera's e-mail component features an uncommonly elegant method to sort through mail archives. Like Adobe's Photoshop Album, Opera employs a simple system of labels and saved searches to make sense of your inbox. For example, clicking on an address book entry shows all the mail that person has sent; clicking on an "Images" link lists messages with attached pictures.
But this cleverness is paid for in complexity. Opera 7.5's default interface includes three different Web-search forms and four different "reload" commands -- yet its standard toolbar omits a home-page button. Right-click menus are littered with irrelevant items. The bookmarks menu comes stuffed with Opera's collection of 266 often-obscure entries -- including 30 that, in a freakish excess of self-love, point to Opera's own products and services.
And pop-up ads aren't blocked unless you change a default setting.
Opera's mail software suffers from weak support for IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) accounts and no support for the encrypted log-ins many Internet providers offer -- and which some, such as AOL, require. Its contacts manager can't import any other program's address books.
The newsgroup and newsreader parts, hidden behind the Mail toolbar button, feel like afterthoughts. Newsgroup filtering isn't available. The newsreader can't import existing subscriptions and doesn't let you add a new RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed by clicking on its icon, instead demanding a convoluted series of right-click commands.
Finally, there are those ads. Opera allows two options: "relevant text ads," which are served up by Google based on what sites you visit on the Web or, if you don't like Google monitoring your travels, bigger, more distracting, generic banner ads.
After a week, I found myself capable of ignoring each kind in practice.
But when I reverted to my usual Web toolkit of Mozilla, Firefox and Safari -- something I had to do when Opera was unable to display sites such as Google's Gmail -- I noticed how much more room the others set aside to display Web pages. I also remarked how much smoother those programs ran in Linux and Mac OS X, and how much less work they took to use.
Then I realized that I didn't quite miss Opera's extra features.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.