Eric Stewart: Running Off At The Mouth

Opera Unite: Why Shiny Isn’t Always Good

by Eric Stewart on Jun.16, 2009, under Technology, The Internet

Geeks are attracted to the shiny.  It’s one of the things that gives us that “sissy” vibe – the sparkly things make us go “Oooo!”  We are drawn to flashing lights.  LEDs are our flame and we are moths (I like the blue ones).

But, a nickel-plated .40 Smith & Wesson pistol is also shiny.  It’s not a good thing though if you use it to shoot yourself in the foot.

A good geek will know not to put a lot of stock in the new and shiny.  It’s always better to let things “burn in” a little while.  We wait for Service Pack 1 of a new Windows release (and yes, even Mac OS X) before using it on our primary machine (well, we do at work anyway … at home is another thing).  We don’t edit original copies of our photos using new photo tools (or ever).  And if we do find something new we might think is interesting, we might take a look around the Internet to see what experiences others might have had.

It’s with this intro that I mention Opera Unite, the (from what I understand) alpha feature available for the next version (10) of the Opera Browser, currently in beta.  The tag line for this feature is “It turns your web browser into a web server.”  Twitter was abuzz today (though since it’s dropped off of the Trending Topics, searches are likely to be mostly Trending Topic abusing spams) about this newly released capability from Opera Labs.

Getting some disclaimers out of the way: This is not a slam on Opera as a web browser alone.  While I don’t use it, apparently many folks feel it is a fast and feature rich browser (compared to Firefox, which may not render pages as fast and might lack extra features Opera has, but has a developer community for its plugins that is unmatched).  This is simply a note suggesting that caution is due.

On the surface what Unite can do sounds like a great idea: You can set things up so that you have a hostname (like that people can enter as a URL and get to documents, photos, chat apps, music, and other functions on your local computer.  You don’t have to go through third parties to chat or trade files with people – no uploading of documents some place, where you might even have to pay a fee to have them hosted.

It is at this time that I would like to take a tangent and talk about the technical ability of your average user.  I have been in the technical support field long enough to be wary of the kinds of trouble someone given a tool can get themselves into.  Why, just today I had to figure out how one changes the “Mii” for a given individual on Wii Fit, as my girlfriend’s mother had managed to change it without knowing that she had.  “When I go into Wii Fit, all that’s there is Nany!”

It is also at this time that I warn you that my gun reference from earlier was not just something I threw out there.

There’s a reason Apache is the most used web server out there.  It’s been out the longest.  It has been tested, and when found lacking, fixed.  It’s code is available for anyone to see.  It’s quite durable.  Firefox may only be at version 3, but the code is open and the original authors were some of the folks from the original alternative browser of choice, Netscape.

And, there’s a reason why you rely on professionals to configure web servers, DNS servers, and mail systems.  Hopefully, they’ve been through it many times before and know what to look for, and how to make sure what goes out is only what you want to go out.

There’s also a reason why alpha software is called alpha, and beta software is called beta, and why folks should leave the testing of such software (Google aside) to folks that know what to expect and have some hope of dealing with the ramifications if something should go wrong.

Opera Unite is the gun with which many an inexperienced user will potentially shoot themselves in the foot.  If it’s not unknowingly sharing malware with their friends, maybe it’s accidentally sharing all of their personal documents with the world.  Or worse (at least as far as legal and fiscal matters are concerned), all of their digital music files.  Right now it’s an alpha feature and it’s getting a lot of traction, at least as far as Twitter is concerned – so many of the tweets I saw made it sound like Unite was the next best thing since sliced bread (which only triggered me screaming, “You don’t get it!” and “That’s not a good thing!” at my flatscreen).  There’s no telling what vulnerabilities reside inside this feature rich addition to the next edition of the Opera web browser.

Maybe I’m being too pessimistic.  Maybe I’m being overly cautious.  Maybe I should have more faith in the folks writing this software.

Or maybe … just maybe … it would behoove you not to put too much stock in this thing until you’ve learned a bit more about it and it’s been around the block a few times.

EDIT: Wednesday, June 17, 2009, 9:02am EDT

Down here I’ll be providing links to other blogs that express many of the issues in a more thought out and eloquent way.

Opera revolution fail by Vitaly Sharovatov

Thoughts on Opera Unite by Chris Messina

Opera’s Unite Is One Incredibly Bad Idea by Lance Ulanoff at PC Mag

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