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Opera's latest arias

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 13, 2001

(Issue 1928, Home Entertainment)

Earlier this year, Opera ( began providing a free version of its Web browser. The Norwegian company had no choice, really, not with Microsoft and Netscape both providing their better-known browsers for free (and combining to control better than 95 percent of the browser market).

So rather than selling its browser, Opera now gives it away with its portal ( as the default home page (although, as with Internet Explorer and Netscape, that can be changed). By driving viewers to its portal page, Opera can then sell advertising and other online business services.

In addition, Opera also has two different browsers available – the above-mentioned free one, which contains advertisements in the tool bar, and a paid browser, which is ad-free.

Whether their business plan turns out to be as good as their browser (which is outstanding) remains to be seen, but Opera is also continuing to show far more innovation than either of its larger competitors.

At the PC Expo in June, Opera released both another upgrade (version 5.12) and a new online application titled Opera Composer.

Opera Composer

Not to be confused with Netscape Composer, which is used for HTML design and editing, Opera Composer is an online tool that allows you to create a customized browser for your own free distribution.

For the past several years, Microsoft has licensed other developers to customize Internet Explorer – and companies like NeoPlanet ( have taken advantage to introduce their own browsers with a unique look and feel, and sometimes even new features not included in IE.

But your average computer user isn't going to be able to customize IE – you have to be a real, honest to God programmer to pull that off.

What sets Opera Composer apart is that the customization is accomplished through an easy to figure out menu on their web site.

This process of designing your own customized version of Opera is so well laid out that you can put together a basic redesign in a couple minutes – or, if you're so inclined, you can spend a couple days or weeks really tweaking your browser.

The options include adding a personal toolbar with up to eight buttons, putting two permanent bookmarks on the existing toolbar, adding your own "skins" to change the appearance of Opera, even adding your own buttons to further customize the look and feel.

You also have the options of including a mail reader or e-mail client, of packing Java with your browser or not – options that help you control the size of your browser (important if you plan to distribute it via Internet downloads rather than on CD-ROM).

Obviously, it's in designing and creating those graphical elements mentioned above that you're most likely to burn the most time. You'll need a really top-notch graphics program to pull this off – something like Illustrator, Freehand, PhotoShop or CorelDraw. But the Opera Composer page gives you the dimensions for the graphics, as well as the format they need to be in, so it's still the sort of project within the reach of most of us.

More importantly for Opera's hopes of growing its user base, Opera Composer's capabilities are well within the reach of most small and medium-size businesses. Anyone outfit with a staff artist (or access to a good freelance artist) and a computer support team can now design, create and distribute its own browser.

With the ability to create a browser touting any message you like (with any web page as the default home page), Opera Composer offers an affordable method for promoting a business or nonprofit organization (as well as finding more potential customers for its advertisers).

Already, software publisher Funcom has released a version of Opera themed around its new Anarchy Online game (

The main drawback to Composer is that, at present, it's only available for Windows versions of Opera. That may change, however – the company has historically released Windows versions of its upgrades first, followed by Mac, Linux, Unix and BeOS, so those other operating systems may eventually be included in Composer.

As for Opera itself, it's design is built around the concept of having multiple browser windows open at one time. It's also quick to load pages – since I lost my DSL service and have reverted to 56k dial-up, I've switched to Opera – it makes a real difference in terms of speed in browsing the Web. It's news reader is as easy to use as Netscape's, although I've yet to try the e-mail client.

Its user base remains small, but it is growing. Like Linux, Opera may be on the verge of giving the big boys a run for their money.