Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Opera Invites You to Join the Cloud


Or at least that's what Opera is claiming with the rollout of its new Opera Unite service. It will allow users to serve up web pages from their own computers.

Why would you want your humble desktop to serve up web content? So far Opera doesn’t have much of an answer to that. The sample apps they offer – a “fridge” to post notes to your friends, a way to share music with your friends – don’t exactly scream revolution or Web 5.0 (as Opera likes to refer to the service).

You might also be wondering what’s so special about Opera Unite; after all there is nothing new about being able to run a web server from your computer. Opera itself has supported BitTorrent for a while. And anyone can stitch together a webserver with Firefox plugins or just enable one without going through a browser.

What Opera Unite does is present this functionality to users in one unified service. People who would never dream of firing up a web server on their own might be tempted to give Opera Unite a whirl. Opera seems to be betting that user-friendly client-side content hosting can buck the trend towards increasingly hosted apps.

OPERA LEADS…WILL OTHERS FOLLOW?

Some of Opera’s early features have been adopted by all major browsers. There are accounts of everything from tabbed browsing to private browsing having originated with Opera. So although Opera has  a very small user base outside of the mobile world, a successful Opera Unite service could be rapidly mimicked in other browsers. Will Opera Unite usher in a new era where every computer acts as its own server? Has the democratization of the cloud finally arrived?

I wouldn’t bet on this for a couple of reasons. In the enterprise, security concerns will prevent widespread adoption (more on security in a minute). And in the home, there are some basic performance issues that make me wonder if this will really fly.

Let’s start with the home. The most obvious problem is that for a server to work it needs to be powered on. Many people turn their computers off to save power and to be environmentally friendly. Strike one against Opera Unite.

Strike two is that many ISPs hit users hard on upload speeds. Anyone who has tried to use an online back-up service knows that there is a huge difference between uploading a gigabyte of data and downloading it. When I tried to check out Opera Unite’s demo page it was painfully slow. That might have to do with the sheer number of visitors the page is getting today, but it doesn’t bode well for future performance.

HOW TO SECURE A SERVER IN YOUR LIVING ROOM…

Which brings us to security. Opera Unite is by no means the first Web 2.0 service to expose the computer in ways our Web 1.0 ancestors would have found difficult to fathom. Browsers like the Mozilla-powered Flock and others already have their fingers deep into a user’s credentials.

Let’s dive into a few specifics of how Opera handles security. On the interface level, the awkwardly long URLs users need to type will certainly be an attractive target for spammers and phishers to exploit. Users have the option to password protect pages, but since the password is stored in the URL this offers very little security on shared computers.  And the under-the-hood security isn't any better; it doesn’t seem like any of the traffic between clients is encrypted, which is to be expected because managing the certificates would be a mess. 

For home users none of this is really a big deal; most users running a casual web server out of their living room are either not very security conscious or don’t have very high sensitive data sitting on their machine. But it is another strike against the notion of using Opera Unite in the enterprise.

In the interest of fairness, there is one nice security feature in the current experimental build of Opera 10.0 – Opera Unite is disabled by default. This is a good way to protect users who have no desire to run a web server on their computer.

IN PRAISE OF THE MANAGED CLOUD

Companies often worry about the cloud because they feel they lose control of data and the surrounding security measures. It's tough to lose control, but in reality most cloud providers are much better at providing security than the average enterprise. So for a small to medium sized business, their data is probably safer hosted in the cloud than hosted on site.

This calculus is even more true of home users. Most home users are incapable of managing their desktops, let alone a server. Opera users – like Firefox users – are probably more tech-savvy as a group than IE users. But even so why go through all the trouble of configuring and securing your environment locally when you could just use a hosted service like MobileMe, Facebook, Flickr, or any of the hundreds of other services that exist in every flavor and price point? When I watch a video on YouTube, I am reasonably confident that it does not come with malware. When I watch a video that is being served up from my buddy’s desktop, that level of confidence drops pretty dramatically.

Of course the big disadvantage of hosted services is ownership and control (a good example being the recent failed attempt by Facebook to drastically change its Terms of Service). But my feeling is that, at the end of the day, most end users don’t really care that much about control. They would rather have the advantages that come with the cloud – including automatic backups – than worry about the intellectual property issues surrounding their vacation photos.

That being said, Opera Unite could become very successful for casual home use, particularly as a means of regulating P2P data exchange. And if the developer community steps up to the plate there may be some very handy apps supporting this. The lack of security features is not an issue for the casual user and is not a significant factor in affecting adoption.

But even if Opera Unite scores with home users it does not seem likely to be a candidate for serious enterprise applications. The enterprise client is getting thinner and thinner and I can’t really see Opera Unite stopping that train.

2 comments:

  1. One thing that is worth mentioning: Opera Unity fails to deliver on the "P2P data exchange" promise. It isn't really decentralized, Opera is still controlling everything. In particular, home users will usually have to use Opera's proxy server as a means to work around NAT and firewalls. And this proxy server will be able to read and modify anything due to missing encryption (yep, certificate managing would be a mess).

    Chris Messina has a more detailed analysis here: http://factoryjoe.com/blog/2009/06/16/thoughts-on-opera-unite/#is-unite-really-decentralized

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  2. Thanks for the comment Wladimir and for pointing out that important detail. You still need to sign in with an Opera account to share your content through Opera Unite. The P2P and decentralized claim rely on the fact that although content is passing through the Opera proxy server, it isn't actually stored or hosted there. If it was purely P2P without Opera as an intermediary that would be more impressive.

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