Is Opera Losing its Innovative Edge?

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.

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.

Opera 12: Faster, Safer, and Leaner

After dozens of snapshots and months of testing, Opera Software is finally ready with Opera 12 or Wahoo. Opera 12 is a bittersweet release that adds several new features, but also ruthlessly chops several old ones.

Opera 12 - Wahoo

As you might expect, not a whole lot has changed since the beta release, so my hands-on of the beta is still a good place for an in-depth look at the new features in Opera 12. The bits that Opera seems to be particularly excited about are:

New light-weight themes that are both easy to create and use: The new themes differ from the previous full-fledged skins in that they don’t alter appearance of browser elements like buttons and tabs. Much like Personas for Firefox, they simply change the browser background.

Opera-12-Themes

Improved security badge: Opera’s address bar security badges have been updated to make them easier to parse for novice users.

Opera-12-Security-Badge

Improved Standards Support: Opera 12 adds support for a whole host of new web technologies including WebRTC (native camera access), HTML5 drag and drop, CSS3 animations and transitions, and CSS generated paged media (new proposed standard from Opera for paginated content suitable for consumption in devices of multiple form factors).

Better Plug-in Handling: Opera now runs plug-ins as separate process. This change should significantly boost Opera’s stability as plug-ins like Flash are responsible for a large chunk of browser crashes. Now, even if the plug-in crashes, Opera will continue to function smoothly since it runs as a separate process.

Hardware Acceleration: Hardware accelerated graphics and WebGL compatibility were supposed to be the major draws of Opera 12. Unfortunately, in spite of pushing back the release of Wahoo, Opera Software hasn’t yet managed to get hardware acceleration working smoothly enough on a wide range of hardware. As a result, this feature is disabled by default, but you can enable it by setting opera:config#UserPrefs|EnableHardwareAcceleration and opera:config#UserPrefs|EnableWebGL to 1.

As mentioned earlier, Opera 12 is not all about new features. It also bids adieu to a host of old features including Opera Unite, Opera Widgets, Speech Recognition, Text to Speech, and Torrent downloader. This kind of chopping of features is unprecedented, and is perhaps an admission that several of the decisions made during the days of Opera 8 to Opera 10 weren’t in its best interests. While I am a bit sad to see some of these features go, most users probably won’t even notice that they are gone.

[ Download Opera 12 ]

Opera 12 Beta Released; Dumps Old Features, Introduces a Boatload of New Ones

After several dozen snapshots and months of testing, Opera Software has finally released Opera 12 Beta. Opera 12, which also goes by the codename Wahoo, was initially planned for late 2011, but was then postponed to allow the hardware acceleration feature to mature.

Opera-12-Beta-Windows-Default-Appearence

Opera Software is finally ready for the concluding sprint towards a stable release of Wahoo. The hardware acceleration and WebGL support is now stable enough to yield significant benefits on most configurations. Unfortunately, it still has some quirks, and is known to cause a performance hit on some systems. As a result, Wahoo’s most promising feature is disabled out of the box, and needs to be enabled by the user. If you wish to take hardware acceleration and WebGL for a spin just set opera:config#UserPrefs|EnableHardwareAcceleration and opera:config#UserPrefs|EnableWebGL to 1.

Recently, Opera was crowned the fastest browser by Tom’s hardware. Opera 12 introduces even more refinements to build on Opera’s existing lead. Opera is promising speed improvements by optimizing the network SSL code and using smarter tab loading to accelerate start-up and shut-down times. With Wahoo, Opera is also introducing 64 bit builds that are compiled to take advantage of the current generation processors.

In the past, Opera has made it clear that it is reluctant to follow Chrome’s process-per-tab model, even though Opera was the first to come up with the idea. With Wahoo, Opera Software has decided to at least offload plugins from the main process. In the newest builds, third-party plugins will run as independent processes. The expectation is that this would allow Opera to continue working, even if a plugin crashes. This should significantly improve stability, since a third of the crashes are caused by plugins like Flash. This very feature also makes it easy for Opera to run as a 64 bit application, and still support 32 bit plugins.

Opera-12-Beta-Windows-Theme

Other new features in Opera 12 include:

  • Lightweight themes, similar to Chrome themes and Firefox Personas.
  • Support for right to left scripts (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Hebrew) in the main interface.
  • Support for “Do Not Track” header.
  • Redesigned security badges for the address bar.

Opera-12-Beta-Security-Badges

  • Improved standards support including lots of HTML5 and CSS3 goodies like WebRTC (native camera access), HTML5 drag and drop, CSS3 animations and transitions, and CSS generated paged media (new proposed standard from Opera for paginated content suitable for consumption in devices of multiple form factors).

Opera 12 also sees the departure of a few significant features. The first casualty is the IBM powered speech recognition and text to speech functionality (Windows only), which was introduced way back in Opera 7.6. The second feature to depart is Opera Widgets, which was introduced in Opera 9, and has since been made mostly redundant by extensions. And finally, Opera Unite, which was announced with much fanfare, is also being shuttered. Opera Unite is the feature I am personally the saddest to lose. It has perhaps been made redundant by the multitude of digital file lockers and media streaming services. However, it was something truly neat and also handy. It’s a pity that Opera did never figure out how to take Unite to the next level. The failure of Unite reminds of Google Wave, which also generated a lot of hype, but crashed as everyone struggled to figure out compelling use cases for the technology.

[ Download Opera 12 Beta ]

New Opera 12 Snapshot Introduces Boatload of Changes Including 64 Bit Versions

Opera 12Opera 12, also known as Wahoo, lost several of its features to Tunny (Opera 11.6), which was an interim release meant to give hardware accelerated graphics more time to become fit for primetime. Tunny came out in December with a revamped mail client and several interface tweaks. Standards support was beefed up in a big way with a new HTML5 parser, ECMAScript 5.1 support, and support for CSS3 radial gradients. The latest Opera 12 snapshot continues this focus on standards with a host of goodies for web developers. HTML5 drag and drop – a technology that enables dragging of elements from one page to another or files from the operating system to a web page, makes its first appearance, as does support for CSS animations. CSS transition support has also been improved.

While including of support for the latest and greatest web technologies is always welcome, users often don’t feel their impact immediately as adoption of new standards invariably takes time. The good news is that the new snapshot has a couple of exciting changes whose benefit users should be able to feel immediately. The new snapshot introduces out of process plugins (OOPP) and 64 bit builds, which have been among the most requested features for a long time. OOOP increases stability of the browser by detaching it from plugins. So the next time your flash plugin crashes, it won’t bring down Opera with it. OOPP is also how Opera can manage to support 32 bit plugins in its 64 bit version.

You can goahead and download the snapshot from here. As always, the snapshot will be installed as an Opera Next build, and won’t affect your stable Opera installation.

Opera Announces Change of Plans, Releases First Snapshot of Opera 11.60 Tunny

Opera-TunnyOpera Software has just released the first snapshot of Opera 11.60, codenamed Tunny. This release marks a departure from the Norwegian browser developer’s previously announced plans of following up Opera Swordfish (Opera 11.5) with Wahoo (Opera 12). According to the new roadmap, Opera will release Tunny within a few weeks, and will follow it up with Wahoo when it is ready. The prime reason for the new roadmap is that Opera’s hardware acceleration feature is still not ready for primetime. “Our ambitions for hardware acceleration are very high and we consider it more important to do it right, than to do it fast”, explained Opera’s Ruarí Ødegaard.

Opera 11.60 will aim to deliver all the features showcased in the first Opera 12 alpha, which was released last month. This includes a new HTML5 parser (Ragnarök), a new version of Carakan (JavaScript engine), full ECMAScript 5.1 support, CSS3 radial gradients, and a new featherweight address field with bookmark star menu. This snapshot also features support for HTML5 custom scheme and content handlers.

Unlike Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, Opera doesn’t follow a rapid release cycle. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of the rapid release schedule. One of the arguments put forth by Mozilla in favor of the new fast paced release cycle is that it ensures that crucial features that are ready for mass consumption don’t get held up due to other unfinished enhancements. By being flexible about its release schedule, Opera is successfully tackling one of the potential disadvantages of a feature driven release cycle, while avoiding all the annoyances of a rapid release cycle.

Opera 11.60 snapshot can be downloaded from the Opera Desktop Team blog. Unlike other preview builds, the snapshot will not be available as an Opera Next download. It will overwrite the stable installation. Hence, it is reccomended that you backup your existing profile before installing this build. Opera has announced that it will continue publishing Opera 12 snapshots, which will be available as an Opera Next download.

Opera 12 Alpha Introduces Hardware Acceleration and HTML5 Engine

Earlier this week, Opera Software released the first alpha of Opera 12. The first preview build of Opera 12 Рcodenamed Wahoo, was released in July. However, the Norwegian browser maker had been saving the goodies for October. As expected, and earlier predicted by me, Wahoo introduces support for hardware acceleration and WebGL. It also includes the Ragnar̦k HTML5 engine that Opera had been working on for a year.

Opera-12-Alpha

Opera is a late entrant as far as hardware acceleration and WebGL support are concerned. However, it laid the groundwork for hardware acceleration through its Vega graphics backend as far back as 2009. Vega enables Opera to use hardware acceleration for everything from displaying fonts and CSS animations to the user interface itself. Hardware acceleration on Opera should work on all modern hardware running Windows XP or newer, Mac, and Linux. Opera maintains a blacklist of old and buggy drivers that are known to cause trouble. In case, hardware acceleration doesn’t work, Opera will switch to the highly optimised Vega software acceleration mode. Open opera:gpu in Opera 12 to find out if it is using hardware acceleration. If the Vega backend is specified as software, then try updating your graphics drivers. Opera 12 also supports WebGL, which is based on a stripped down version of OpenGL. WebGL enables browsers to run graphics intensive 3D games and animations that redefine what browsers can do.

Like hardware acceleration, Ragnarök is also something that Opera had been working on for a long time. The biggest advantage of switching to a HTML5 parser is compatibility. “The HTML5 specification defines a set of parsing rules for all markup, whether valid or invalid,” explained Bruce Lawson in an earlier blogpost. “Once all browsers have HTML5 parsers, the same markup will produce the same DOM across all conforming browsers”.

Traditionally, Opera’s alpha builds introduce engine improvements, while the beta introduces the more user facing features. Wahoo maintains this tradition by updating Presto (Opera’s rendering engine) to 2.9.220 and adding support for CSS3 radial gradients, in addition to the features detailed above. There are only a couple of user-oriented new features. A new lightweight skinning system that is pretty much identical to Firefox Personas is now the preferred skinning technique for Opera, and the bookmark star found in Firefox and Chrome has found its way into Opera. Besides this, the interface has been tweaked slightly to make the Featherweight skin appear more native to the OS you are using.

You can download Opera 12 alpha from opera.com/next. As you might expect, the alpha build has some bugs, including a particularly annoying one that makes it incompatible with Aero Snap on Windows. However, since all preview builds belong to the Opera Next stream, installing Wahoo won’t overwrite your stable Opera installation.

Opera Releases First Snapshot of Opera 12, Codenamed Wahoo

In keeping with its tradition of fast paced development, Opera Software has released the first snapshot of the successor to Swordfish just eight days after its release. Swordfish or Opera 11.50, which was released last week, has so far been downloaded more than 32 million times, making it the most successful launch ever.

Opera-12-Wohoo

The successor to Swordfish is being codenamed Wahoo, which is one of the fastest tropical fishes in the world. The first snapshot only features bug-fixes and minor enhancements. New features will be introduced at a later stage. Since Opera Software is numbering Wahoo as Opera 12, there should be a fairly meaty changelog by the time it reaches the beta phase. One feature which seems to be a no-brainer is the addition of cross-platform support for WebGL and hardware accelerated compositing. This is something Opera has been working on for quite some time, and was demoed earlier in the year in an Opera Labs build. Moreover, Opera recently began to work on a HTML5 port of Emberwind, a popular indie game. That could very well be something that Opera Software intends to use to highlight the performance benefits of hardware acceleration.

You can download the first snapshot of Opera 12 from the Desktop Team blog. A pre-alpha build can and probably will have usability issues. However, you can safely try it on your system since it will be installed separately from your main Opera installation.