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The new Opera is sexy. Why isn’t it more popular?

Opera 11 was released last year (新年快乐啊!), but I haven’t had time to get my hands on it until now. Only after I played around a little did I realize that there is pure awesomeness in this browser. With the sounds of raging war between Google, Mozilla, Apple and Microsoft echoing in the background, you sure have to wonder: why isn’t this slick browser more popular? Here are my thoughts.

The new Opera is sexy

I’ve never been a diehard Opera fan, so the reason why I have Opera installed is simply for testing cross-browser consistency. Never have I used it for over forty seconds. Now that I’ve tried to use it as my temporary ‘default’ browser, I blame myself for not having tried it sooner. Opera has some great features that exceed all the other mainstream browsers.

  • Side tabs, tab stacks, and tab preview. As you may or may not know, Opera was actually the first web browser to implement tabs. Although other browsers have since followed suit, Opera still takes the lead in this particular field with powerful tab managing functionality that is far more practical than that provided by, say, Firefox 4’s Tab Candy approach.

    Opera’s tab stack with previews for each.

    In Opera 11, you can drag a tab over another to form a tab stack. You can click the small arrow to expand it and see all the tabs in this stack, or simply mouse over the stack and see previews for all tabs inside. It’s likely the best way yet to group and organize your tabs.

    If you have a really wide screen, an alternative way to solve the TooManyTabs problem is to use side tabs. Unlike Chrome’s incomplete and experimental side tabs implementation, Opera’s side tabs offer practically the same functionality as top/bottom tabs. You have toggleable tab thumbnails, you can drag tabs around and pin them, and you can form tab stacks in the same way.

  • Minimalist interface design. Of course you can call it a rip off Chrome, which seems to be a trend these days, but Opera has more right to do this than any other browser - mainly because Opera tends to introduce new features years before other browsers and fail to receive credit in the end. Anyway, the ripoff is at least a good one, and not without Opera’s own innovations. The recycle bin, for example, makes it extremely easy to reopen closed tabs. The address bar also serves as a search bar, as in Chrome, and you can customize keywords for each search engine.
  • Nice support of web standards. Frontend web developers nowadays often get excited about how Webkit and Gecko are fast to implement cutting-edge web standards, but few pay attention to Presto, which has traditionally faithful support of web standards. It’s not uncommon to see ‘-webkit-transform + -moz-transform + transform’ in CSS, but next time, could you please consider adding -o-transform too? It uses the same syntax and hey, don’t forget that Presto passes the Acid3 test smoothly.
  • Smooth animation. It’s not difficult to tell that Opera developers are perfectionists. Everything goes with smooth animation - scrolling, tab previews, alert boxes, what not. Very sleek.

Nothing is perfect; neither is Opera

Despite the obvious amount of work put into this awesome browser, there are several rough parts around the edges that could be more polished.
  • Currently when the tab bar is at the top of maximized browser window, moving your mouse to the top of the screen and clicking will not trigger a tab selection; you have to move a bit downwards. That is, there is a 1 or 2-pixel gap between the top edge of the screen and the tabs. I’d see it removed.
  • When you select a search engine from the dropdown menu of the search box, the menu doesn’t go away. It seems as if the search engine weren’t changed while in fact it is, resulting in confusion. Make the menu disappear or flash on click.
  • The first option in the context menu of a hyperlink is still “Open”. That is so 2006 - who would right-click and choose “Open” instead of simply left-click? Placing “Open in new tab” at the first option would be much better.
  • Newly created tabs are always placed at the far end of the tab bar. It’s inconvenient; better place them just after the current tab, and if there’s a tab stack, automatically place it therein.
  • When you select a word, right click, and click “Dictionary”, the current tab is taken to the dictionary web page. Again, inconvenient. Better bring up a new tab, and preferably into the tab stack. The same applies for “Open image”, “Search”, etc.
  • The query part of the URL is ‘intelligently’ hidden in the address bar. It’s so confusing and unnecessary that I’m sure it’s the worst new feature of Opera 11. They could’ve simple given the query part a lighter color, but utterly omitting it is not the way to go.
  • Opera could use some speed improvements. Webpages that open up almost instantly in Chrome take longer time in Opera. It’s still somewhat better than Firefox though. Note that this is just the case on my computer.

Why isn’t it more popular?

Opera does have its share of imperfections, but in the end, it’s a great browser. (It’s indeed the most popular browser in some countries such as Ukraine.) However, it only has a global market share of around 2%, and we don’t see many web developers optimizing their web applications/websites towards Opera. What are the reasons behind this? My guesses are following.

  • Poor advertisement. IE is the default on Windows, Safari the default on Mac, Firefox/Chromium the default on several Linux distributions. Moreover, we see IE9 ads, Chrome ads, and (rarer these days) Firefox with Google Toolbar ads. I’ve practically never seen Opera ads. Whether this is due to poor finance or bad marketing strategy I’ve no idea, but Opera sure could be much better off if it were in the first place more widely known.
  • Established impression. Partly due to the above reason and partly due to its age, Opera seems to have established a not-so-good impression among many users. Some of these users may have used Opera in the past, when it was not as polished as it is today, and have continued to think that Opera has not changed. I myself wasn’t aware that Opera no longer required a license fee until around a year ago. (Opera is still proprietary, though.) A radical solution might be to rebrand the browser - its version number is already too large, anyway - although I’m totally unsure about the consequences.
  • Strange subproduct names. Opera has a habit of giving browser functionalities their own names. First-time Opera users often ask “What the hell is Opera Link/Unite/Turbo/Dragonfly/etc. ?”, form a bad impression of Opera in the confusion, and leave for other browsers. In my opinion, it’s better to just call them Sync/Share/Accelerator/Developer Tools, respectively. They are part of an integrated browsing experience, not separate, individual products, so there is hardly any point in giving them each a strange name. (I’m looking at you Microsoft.)
  • Opera’s long context menu.

    Feature-rich versus simplicity. The web today is all about efficiency. Simplicity, most of the time, boosts efficiency. Complexity does not. Google Chrome does well in this regard; it does not have a mail checker, an accelerator, a sharing facility, not even RSS - but what it does have, it does right. It seems that Opera cannot make a decision between the two.

    You can easily tell this by looking at Opera’s context menu. It has Back, Forward, Search, Reload, which is good. But it also has “Rewind” and “Fast forward”. It even has “Reload every X seconds”. There’s no denying that it might be useful at times, but how often does that happen? Approximately never. The context menu is made very long by these extra options - they do make Opera more powerful, but at the greater cost that frequently used options like ‘Search’ are harder to find, and thus cost users more time.

Conclusion

Opera is an innovative and powerful browser, although it’s not without its problems. Once the above issues are properly taken care of, I’m sure it will have a bright future. As for now - will I switch from Chrome to Opera? The answer is no. Before Opera changes a little more, Chrome still fits my tastes better. It’s important to realize that the browser is becoming more of a universal application platform, a simple, unobtrusive base to build stuff upon, instead of a complex mind-clogging all-in-one application suite. In this aspect of the problem, Opera still has a long way to go. 加油, Opera!

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