The newest version of Opera is out, and it’s a handsome enhancement. It ramps up performance, improves stability, increases security, and features quite a few nifty tricks. All in all, it’s a significant update that will please Opera fans. Yet, I can’t help but feel a tinge of dissapointment with Opera 12.
I have been closely following Opera Software for nearly a decade. I still remember installing Opera v7 and falling in love with its speed and intuitiveness. Opera was never particularly popular among the masses, but its strong culture of innovation allowed it to amass an extremely loyal fan base. Opera was the first browser to fully exploit the power of tabbed browsing (it wasn’t, however, the first tabbed browser), it was the first browser to allow full-page zooming, it was the first browser to incorporate session management, it was the first browser to add a dedicated search bar, it was the first browser to integrate a pop-up blocker, it was the first browser to have a private data cleaner, it was the first browser to support mouse gestures, it was the first browser to have speed dials, and so on and so forth.
Almost all major releases of Opera sported one or more innovations that allowed it to stand out from the crowd. Opera 8 featured voice recognition and text-to-speech support. Opera 9 introduced content blocker, widgets, bit torrent downloader, site preferences, and search engine creation wizard. Opera 10 introduced visual tabs and Opera Turbo. Opera 11 introduced tab stacking, and visual mouse gestures. However, when it comes to user facing innovative features, Opera 12 draws a blank.
The biggest new feature in Opera 12 is a lightweight skinning engine that both Firefox and Chrome have had for years. Other features are a mix of cosmetic changes, under the hood stuff that most users will not care about, and features that already exist in other browsers. Opera 12 is all about playing catch-up. Instead of leading from the front, Opera Software is now merely plugging the gaps in its existing offering. Make no mistake, there is no harm in taking inspiration from others. In fact, I was highly appreciative of Opera 11, which introduced extension support, and resolved several of my longstanding complaints. However, when you are the underdog, you need to do more than just equal your competition. You need to give people compelling reasons to ditch the browser they have grown comfortable with and try your product.
The problem with Opera 12 is that it simply doesn’t offer any incentive to folks who didn’t like the earlier versions to come and try out the new version. I have had Opera as my default browser for close to a decade, but earlier this year, I finally switched to Chrome as default. I still miss some of the features in Opera like its excellent built-in Notes, great RSS feed reader, simple IRC client, powerful keyboard shortcuts, and customizable speed dials. However, they are no longer reason enough to stop me from switching to Chrome, which offers powerful web apps like TweetDeck, full profile sync (including extensions), hardware acceleration with WebGL, and web notifications.
Over the past couple of years, there has been a marked changed in Opera as a company. Several are good, but some are also worrying. Opera seems less stubborn than before, and appears to be more aware of the market. After resisting for ages, it finally implemented extensions. It also put in some serious work into creating an excellent developer tool, and currently behaves better than ever before in Linux and OS X.
Unfortunately, the Norwegian browser maker also seems to have lost some of its innovative drive. Not only is Opera no longer coming up with distinctive new features, but it is also allowing promising features to stagnate. One of the smartest features of Opera 11 was Tab Stacking. Tab Stacking allows you to drag and drop tabs on top of each other to group them into stacks. You can collapse stacks to save space, drag and drop them to spawn a new window with selected tabs, or close all of them at one go. It’s just the kind of feature that a power user will love. Briefly, Opera also toyed with the idea of automatic tab stacking. However, they dropped this before the final release, as the algorithm for automatic stacking of tabs wasn’t very well polished. Since then, there has been no further work on this potentially brilliant concept. Now, Chrome is implementing automatic tab stacking, and I suspect that they get it out of the door way before Opera. Something similar happened with voice support in Opera. While Opera ignored the feature, allowed it to stagnate, and ultimately killed it, Google tried to make this feature more accessible and popular.
Opera 12 is a great release, and it still is an awesome browser that I wouldn’t hesitate recommending to others. However, I am worried because Opera seems to have passed on the responsibility of innovating to the folks at Google. When Google Chrome came out, it took plenty of inspiration from Opera. So did Firefox and Safari. However, now, it seems that Opera is the one that is looking towards others for inspiration. It’s quite possible that my worries are unfounded. Opera might be working on some mind-blowing feature in their labs that will blow me away. It’s possible that they just need a bit more time to showcase what they have been cooking. But, Opera now has an extremely nimble competitor in Chrome, and it has to move fast if it hopes to grow in the desktop segment.