Opera Unite – a first look

[update] I got some unite services working now from any browser, must have been a glitch earlier — feel free to leave a comment on my fridge 🙂

Opera announced that they would “reinvent the Web” today — having spent some time going through what was announced I’m not sure they managed to reinvent a whole lot.

So what happened? They announced a beta of Opera Unite, with what they call a “Web server on the Web browser”. Trying to make my way through the marketing speak the best description I found was in the FAQ: “share the content directly from your computer rather than loading it and sharing it through a third-party server”.

This is essentially P2P technology, a term many companies now seem to avoid like the plague for its association with illegal filesharing through bittorrent (which is a whole different issue). Opera has some services that you can install in their browser that run over a unite:// protocol (file sharing, a fridge message app, media player, photo sharing etc.). According to what I’ve read this is supposed to be accessible from any browser, though haven’t been able to get that to work — partly because the service seems to be overwhelmed.

That might sound a bit strange a P2P service getting overwhelmed, isn’t the whole point that it goes directly from one computer to the other? Well when you run a service like this it need to go through a server to resolve the connected clients so they can continue further data interaction directly between themselves rather than passing through the server. This is I assume also why you’re required to have an Opera account and sign in to that to run any of these services.

I really like the idea of what they’re doing, and P2P, client-to-client, UDP or a host of other names it gets advertised as is definitely the way forward. Not necessarily for services like they currently demo on Opera Unite but certainly for live audio/video streaming and other situations where bandwidth throughput is still a real issue.

Where I think they got it wrong is integrating this in the browser, this is not a technology that should run on a client software level. I see browsers as simply rendering web content, they should IMHO not play an active role in the data connection flow of web applications. The marketing slogan “reinventing the web” is fundamentally flawed in that sense, they seem to have create a separate channel of services that run client side in the browser and facilitate P2P through their Opera server. It doesn’t seemt to be about “the web” whatsoever.

For what its worth, I think Adobe is working on a better solution here with Stratus — bringing P2P to Flash content (for more information check out this video on Adobe TV). With the RTMP specification getting opened up yesterday, I hope they’ll do the same for this RTMFP which would enable open source alternatives to Flash Media Server to facilitate these P2P enabled Flash applications. The key benefit here being that it gets served from the web server runs cross-browser and cross-platform and its not using a browser specific protocol or going through an Opera server to establish the connection.

In half a decade’s time this will hopefully all be standard functionality on all common web servers but for now its interesting to see various solutions come up to make this happen.

Please bear in mind, these are just my initial thoughts and observations of what Opera announced and what I could figure out from reading the site. I’ll be happy to review this again in a few weeks when I’ve had a chance to try it some more.


4 thoughts on “Opera Unite – a first look

  1. Lawrie says:

    Thanks for this interesting write up Peter. I had a quick look at Opera Unite this morning – but couldn’t make much out from their videos.

  2. Jens Wegar says:

    Like you said, looks like P2P under a different name. I’m not sure I agree with you that this type of stuff has no place in the browser though. High traffic media sites, like YouTube, Flickr, etc. I think could see a major benefit (both from a consumer and producer perspecive) if their content would be shared through P2P technology by people that view a particular piece of content, in addition to being downloadable from their servers. This would of course all have to happen in the background. E.g. user A starts to watch a video on YouTube. While he is watchin, user B also starts to watch the same video. The YouTube server notices that there are two users watching the same video and asks their browsers to initiate a P2P connection for that content. YouTube gets a slightly smaller server load, while the users get faster content delivery. Not sure if this is what is envisioned with Opera Unite, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

  3. Peter says:

    Jens, I’m not saying it has no place on the contrary — its just that I think it shouldn’t be implemented in the browser software but rather on the web technology level.

    As in the example you give a site like YouTube it makes perfect sense and it is the video player on the website that would initiate the P2P connection.

    What Opera Unite seems to be doing is starting it from the browser, this means that only Opera plugin services can take advantage of it. Its sort of like a closed ecosystem if you know what I mean.

  4. Jens Wegar says:

    Ahh, you’re right. But isn’t that the same as with the RMFTP protocol? It only gives the benefits of P2P to Flash based content and it will require the Flash Player to function, right? Unless Adobe does indeed open source that protocol so that other media types, say Quicktime for the sake of argument, could benefit from P2P streaming, they will in effect also have closed down the ecosystem and tied the user to one implementation, or? (It’s been a long weekend for me, so forgive me if I’m missing something fundamental.)

    btw. I found a pretty good write up of Opera Unite here: http://factoryjoe.com/blog/2009/06/16/thoughts-on-opera-unite/. Mostly negative, though I think the write did a decent job of argumenting his case. I still don’t have enough info about Unite, but unless Opera opens up the network so that we don’t have to have an Opera account or run things through their server, it sounds like they’re basically saying “we should have control over all your traffic”. Because what is a P2P network without a tracker that can initiate the connection?

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