Taking the Web Into Our Own Hands, One Computer at a Time

My name is Lawrence Eng, and, as a product analyst for Opera Software, my job is to understand our users and what they need, so we can serve them better. Today, I will share my thoughts on Opera Unite, a new Opera technology that I’m extremely excited about. I’ve been an avid Opera user since 2001 and have seen the numerous innovations Opera has introduced to dramatically improve the experience of Web browsing. Of all the new features we’ve introduced over the years, none of them have filled me with as much anticipation as Opera Unite. This technology is a radical first step towards addressing what I call “the Internet’s unfulfilled promise”, which is about our ability to connect with each other and participate meaningfully online—on our own terms, and without losing control of our data.

In this article I will explain what Opera Unite is, discuss “the Internet’s unfulfilled promise” in more detail (and explain how it led to us creating Opera Unite), and share some inspirational ideas to illustrate what you can do with it.

If you haven’t already, download the new Opera Unite builds available, and start playing.

Update: Opera Unite is now part of the Opera browser. Please visit https://www.opera.com/browser for the latest downloads.

Let us know what you think!

1. Introducing Opera Unite

Opera Unite is a unique technology that turns any computer or device running Opera into a Web server. In other words, your computer (running Opera Unite) is truly part of the fabric of the Web, rather than just interacting with it, and it’s something anyone can use. With Opera Unite, everyday non-technical users can serve and share content and services directly from their own computers in the form of intuitive applications. That sounds kind of cool from a technology point of view, but what can you do with it, and why is it important?

With Opera Unite, we are giving developers a chance to develop applications (known as Opera Unite services) that directly link people’s personal computers together, so that you can connect with one or more of your friends at the same time. It all happens through the browser, so no additional software has to be downloaded, and it will work wherever Opera works (Windows, Mac, Linux, and later mobile phones and other devices). Opera provides the platform and you provide the applications — what you create is limited only by your imagination. We believe Opera Unite will redefine what’s possible with Web applications, and we invite you to join us in moving beyond stale ideas and limitations.

Our vision for Opera Unite

What will Opera Unite services look like? How will they be different from other application platforms out there, and what will users be doing with Opera Unite that they weren’t doing before, using other technologies?

The initial applications offered by Opera Unite are just simple demos (such as a “messenger” application and a media player) that replicate existing services and online functionality, showing them working in the context of Opera Unite. That’s just the tiniest tip of the iceberg—the potential for what can be done is much larger. The key to Opera Unite is that it enables a whole new class of social software on the Web, applications that benefit from two or more people being online at the same time. And, with Opera Unite, these people can all connect directly without needing middlemen who control third-party servers.

What Opera Unite offers is an opportunity and a challenge to developers and entrepreneurs who are creative enough to envision new ways that people can interact online, so that computing becomes truly interpersonal.

At this point, if you’re already convinced about Opera Unite’s potential, feel free to jump to [part 3][#part-3] for some examples of what Opera Unite services might look like in the near future. If you want to learn more about why we created this technology, read the next part.

2. The Internet’s unfulfilled promise

Originally the Internet’s promise was that it would connect us all, bringing people together in a whole new way, bypassing the constraints of geography. The Web meant that we could all be part of a larger human network. How we actually interact with each other online, however, has been shaped by particular techno-social circumstances. Because of those circumstances, our online interactions have been constrained and are far from perfect.

Undoubtedly, the ability to participate online has increased, especially for people in developed countries. Self-publishing, self-expression, and social networking retain their status as the cornerstone of online activity for millions of people around the world. That said, people who create and share content will never approach true empowerment online until the computers they use are actually part of the Internet. Currently, most of us contribute content to the Web (for example by putting our personal information on social networking sites, uploading photos to Flickr, or maybe publishing blog posts), but we don’t contribute to its fabric — the underlying infrastructure that defines the online landscape that we inhabit.

Our computers are only dumb terminals connected to other computers (meaning servers) owned by other people — such as large corporations — who we depend upon to host our words, thoughts, and images. We depend on them to do it well and with our best interests at heart. We place our trust in these third parties, and we hope for the best, but as long as our own computers are not first class citizens on the Web, we are merely tenants, and hosting companies are the landlords of the Internet.

Social networking is important, but who owns it — the online real estate and all the content we share on it? How much control over our words, photos, and identities are we giving up by using someone else’s site for our personal information? How dependent have we become? I imagine that many of us would lose most of our personal contacts if our favorite Web mail services shut down without warning. Also, many of us maintain extensive friend networks on sites like MySpace and Facebook, and are, therefore, subject to their corporate decisions via “Terms of Service” and click-through agreements. Furthermore, what does it mean anyway to be connected to hundreds of our “closest” friends? What about our real social networks, the people we want to interact with on a regular basis (like once a week, or even every day)? Why are online solutions to help us with our real-world social needs so few and far between?

We are connected to a Web that has democratized much and is an amazing source of information. However, “the wisdom of the crowd,” along with the notion that our data ought to live on other people’s computers that we don’t control, has contributed to making the Internet more impersonal, anonymous, fragmented, and more about “the aggregate” than the individual. In fact, quite the opposite of the original promise. For too long, we’ve been going online to connect to each other, but sacrificing intimacy as a result.

With Opera Unite, I think we can start moving in a different direction. I hope you’ll join me in imagining a more personal and social computing experience that actually begins to deliver on the old (but not forgotten) promise of the Internet bringing people together in meaningful ways.

3. A vision of Opera Unite services

The first few services we’ve released for Opera Unite are fairly simple and offer functionality that you’ve likely seen elsewhere, perhaps on desktop applications or 3rd party web sites. These first few demos are meant to illustrate how Opera Unite services are put together and the basics behind the new technology. Building on that foundation, what power will developers unlock when they create and deploy Unite Services in the future? Below is an illustration of what an Opera Unite service could look like. In coming weeks, we’ll follow this up with further ideas and concepts.

Opera Unite Jukebox

At Opera, when we first talked about media applications created for Opera Unite, one idea was a simple music player, where I would play a song on my computer, and my friends on their computers would then hear the same song on their machines. That’s not a bad idea, but is it something people would truly want to use? Does it offer anything revolutionary or anything fun, like a social component, that makes it worthwhile to use?

In trying to come up with something better, I envisioned the Opera Unite Jukebox application. Instead of just choosing a song and forcing all of my online friends to hear it, the Opera Unite Jukebox will let me choose 10 songs from my collection and put it in the queue, and all 8 of my friends who are connected to me (via Opera Unite) will do the same. In doing so, we create a virtual jukebox that contains the songs we’ve all selected. The jukebox will then play the songs to all of us (in random order), creating a shared listening experience. It’s sort of like online radio but with a social component, harking back to the days of going to a friend’s house to listen to records/tapes/CDs together. It’d be great for get-togethers too, allowing everyone to be the party DJ.

Additional application features might include:

  • On-the-fly ranking of songs so you can see which of your friends has the best (or worst) taste in music, as agreed upon by all of you
  • A small window displaying relevant track, album, or purchasing info that’s pulled from the Web as each song is played
  • A built-in chat box so you can discuss each other’s music as you’re listening to it
  • Built-in trivia games where listeners submit questions
  • A server to upload your playlists and trivia questions to, so you can challenge other listeners around the world, even if you don’t know them.

The Opera Unite Jukebox is just one simple example. Opera Unite services can be just about anything. It’s up to developers, companies, entrepreneurs, end users, and anyone with a vision of what the interpersonal Web really means, to take that vision and build the next generation of applications that bring people together online in brand new ways.

Think of multiplayer games, from simple two-player challenges like Chess up to sprawling RPGs. And Opera Unite is not just about fun. Think about collaborative applications such as spreadsheets, documents or Wikis, which you can work on with friends and colleagues without having to host them on a third-party site such as Google Spreadsheets or installing specialized applications on a dedicated server. You could use reverse Ajax or “COMET” techniques to mean that all the updates are seen on everyone’s computers in real time; multiple people could make changes at once, without having to lock people out.


Opera Unite applications can be just about anything. It’s up to developers, companies, entrepreneurs, end users, and anyone with a vision of what the interpersonal Web really means, to take that vision and build the next generation of applications to bring people together online in brand new ways.

In upcoming installments of this series, we will discuss other uses we envision for Opera Unite services.

Further reading: