Continuing to lead the field in browser innovation, Norwegian internet company Opera has just announced a brand new development that promises to genuinely open up the internet to absolutely everyone. Opera Unite uses a compact web server inside Opera's latest desktop browser that lets you share your content – photos, music, thoughts and the like. Designed to give users more privacy and flexibility by sharing and serving content directly – without the need for third-party servers – Unite also can run chat rooms and host entire websites.

A brief history in browser development

Opera has always been at the forefront of inventive browser design. Many of the useful, can't-live-without features we take for granted today were developed by techs at Opera long before they were adopted by other browsers.

Pop-up blocking, for instance, which first appeared in an Opera browser way back in the year 2000. And the clearing of private data at the end of a session, which was introduced around the same time. Page zoom, released in 1996, mouse gestures (2001) and the incredibly useful ability to save browser sessions (1996) all appeared in Opera first. Although who was first is hotly contested, Opera was certainly among the first to introduce tabbed browsing. It was the first browser to fully embrace peer-to-peer technology by integrating a torrent engine into its build (2006) and, in 2007, the browser was updated again to include the now familiar speed-dial function.

It's not only users who benefit from Opera's innovations, the browser has been consistently kind to developers, too, having been the first Windows browser to pass the Acid2 test - a web page created to test a browser's support of web standards - and has recently passed the updated Acid3 test with the browser's latest incarnation, version 10.

Opera also developed the world's most popular mobile phone browser, the Opera Mini. But in a fiercely competitive market, dominated by two very different giants, you'd be forgiven if you've not yet come across this particular browser.

Keeping promises

In the beginning, the internet offered so much promise to its users. Instant communication, up-to-the-minute information and a wealth of data at your fingertips. Much of this has been realized of course but at the hefty price of signing up to often dubious corporate terms and conditions. Opera Unite aims to turn this on its head and put users back in charge.

According to Opera's product analyst Lawrence Eng: "People who create and share content will never approach true empowerment online until the computers they use are actually part of the Internet." With the release of Unite he hopes to see "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".

Up and running

Opera's CEO Jon von Tetzchner believes that "Opera Unite is one of our most significant innovations yet, because it changes forever the fundamental fabric of the web". By effectively ditching the client-server model and transforming the user into both client and server, Unite facilitates interaction and sharing between users directly over the internet, negating the need for third-party servers altogether. All you need to view content is a modern web browser, although to act as content provider you will need to use the latest version of Opera's own web browser with Unite enabled.

If you want to get onboard, you'll need to download a special build of Opera's latest browser from Opera's labs. With your new browser installed, look for the Unite logo in the left hand corner of the browser screen and enable Unite. You will then need to log into the service or sign up and log in.

Once logged in you should head for your Unite homepage by selecting Tools, Opera Unite Server, My Opera Unite Page or clicking the propeller-like Unite icon. Down the left hand side of the screen you should see a list of services. You can add, change or delete and otherwise customize these to your heart's content.

You need Opera Unite to actually host and run services, but if you just want to access content hosted by others, you need a web browser pointed at the Opera Unite home page of the person running the services and you're set.

To use Unite fully, however, you'll need a friend or colleague who has also gone through the same simple set-up process. Then you'll be able to share images, documents, video, music, games, collaborative applications and much more besides.

Services available at launch include:

  • Secure file sharing
  • A service to give your computer the ability to act as a web server
  • A media player
  • The ability to share photos directly from your hard disk
  • A self-contained chat service
  • A message service called the Fridge, where friends can leave notes on your virtual fridge door

Services are expected to quickly expand, as more developers and users collaborate to produce widgets and applications.

A getting-started tutorial (including screenshots) is available or, for those wanting all the fine detail, there's a comprehensive user guide.

To watch the Opera Unite announcement via webcast, go here.

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