On the one hand, I was sickened by the lack of analysis from the echolalic blogger news corps. It appeared that Opera PR had successfully reached out to all of them, shoved a news release down their throats and waited to give them the go-ahead to regurgitate it on their blogs, using the same screenshots, same content, and differing only in the pithiness of their post titles.
Of course, I could have gotten the same depth of analysis from half a dozen tweets.
Maybe they long ago wrote off Opera and aren’t interested in providing any kind of depth of insight but whatever, who knows — the nouveau press corps blew it. Social media proves its vapidity once again.
But, I digress. I’ll tell you what I think, since there’s a lot in the details of Opera’s announcement that bear inspection, even if I’m the only one to do it.
I’m going to talk about six topics:
- What is Unite?
- The Marketing Pitch
- Why isn’t Opera open source?
- Is Unite really decentralized?
- Owning Your Namespace
- Unite & Activity Streams
Let’s get to it.
What is Unite?
Like Flock before it (Disclaimer: okay, I’m just stroking my own ego here. Note to self: get over yourself), Opera is attempting to take advantage of the rise of social networking (the verb) and bake it into the browser, as a personal extension to one’s computing experience.
They accomplish this by embedding what amounts to a web server in the browser, and making it possible to share files, music and photos and to post notes or chat directly with your friends (or anyone who knows the URL to your account and in some cases, has the right password).
You can download an Opera Unite alpha build to try it yourself.
The Marketing Pitch
The marketing hype for Unite started recently, with a bright red page (above) hosted at opera.com/freedom. Of course this inspired a bit of buzz, and Kas Thomas from CMS Watch even guessed correctly what it was all about:
Folks, let me tell you what’s going to happen. I have a pretty strong hunch (but no inside info, I assure you) on this one. This is something I’ve thought about for years — it has needed to happen for years — and I’ll be thrilled if Opera pulls it off, although whether people will flock to adopt it is another question.
The answer is that Opera is going to embed a web server in itself.
When you fire up Opera, you’ll be operating a secure server and you will be able to serve all kinds of content (whatever you want, basically: bookmarks, contacts, cached content, arbitrary files from a roped-off area of your local storage, web pages of your own) to other Opera users, at the very least, and maybe all browser users, at the very most.
The mystery seems to have paid off, as Unite is topping Techmeme today.
What I find so fascinating about this marketing message is that it presumes that owning one’s own data and “connecting directly” with friends is somehow relevant to people — as though it’s a big problem that people have been complaining about for years, and that Opera has finally answered the call.
But I think they’re missing the big picture here — or intentionally obscuring it — which is that, while the idea of owning your own data may be attractive to neo-libertarians and open source geeks — most people really don’t care and are happy to outsource storage of their data to someone else who can be responsible for backing up their data and fending off hackers. 200 million Facebook users can’t be wrong, right?
People have embraced social networks because they make it easy to share and collaborate using the browser that they already have — and answering the question: “what do I do with all these stupid digital photos sitting idly on my harddrive?”
Let’s face it, bookmarks were pretty lame before we could peak over our friends’ shoulders at what they were reading.
So while Opera is right to seize on to the social networking meme, they’re doing so largely to increase the waning relevance of their browser — not to support freedom as they claim — especially at a time when Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari have entered the ring as the new twin contenders for the browser crown (even though no one knows what a “browser” is).
Furthermore, their whole pitch about owning your own data and disintermediating the large social networks will likely resonate much more with a European audience (i.e. one that would give 7.1% of their vote to the Pirate Party) than a mainstream, social network-obsessed American one.
Our computers are only dumb terminals connected to other computers (meaning servers) owned by other people — such as large corporations — who we depend upon to host our words, thoughts, and images. We depend on them to do it well and with our best interests at heart. We place our trust in these third parties, and we hope for the best, but as long as our own computers are not first class citizens on the Web, we are merely tenants, and hosting companies are the landlords of the Internet.
Social networking is important, but who owns it — the online real estate and all the content we share on it? How much control over our words, photos, and identities are we giving up by using someone else’s site for our personal information? How dependent have we become? I imagine that many of us would lose most of our personal contacts if our favorite Web mail services shut down without warning. Also, many of us maintain extensive friend networks on sites like MySpace and Facebook, and are, therefore, subject to their corporate decisions via “Terms of Service” and click-through agreements. Furthermore, what does it mean anyway to be connected to hundreds of our “closest” friends? What about our real social networks, the people we want to interact with on a regular basis (like once a week, or even every day)? Why are online solutions to help us with our real-world social needs so few and far between?
We are connected to a Web that has democratized much and is an amazing source of information. However, “the wisdom of the crowd,” along with the notion that our data ought to live on other people’s computers that we don’t control, has contributed to making the Internet more impersonal, anonymous, fragmented, and more about “the aggregate” than the individual. In fact, quite the opposite of the original promise. For too long, we’ve been going online to connect to each other, but sacrificing intimacy as a result.
With Opera Unite, I think we can start moving in a different direction.
Now, it might sound ironic coming from me that I think Opera was wrong to paint their pitch with the paint of libertarian ethos, but if they’re going to succeed, they have to go beyond “owning your own data” to talking about why owning your own data is better or easier. Philosophical rhetoric will only get you so far, as I’ve learned.
Why isn’t Opera open source?
So, with all that raging neo-libertarian angst, why isn’t Opera open source?
Quite frankly, I have no fucking clue. And with Webkit giving everyone — including Mozilla — a run for dominance over the personal viewport to the web, I simply don’t see why anyone would build on the Opera platform (albeit, their platform is largely the web — though their rendering engine remains proprietary).
Could it be failure of imagination? Is it that Opera hasn’t figured out that the future of the web is in hosted and delegated services? Or, is it that they did figure that out, but desperately want to defeat that future in order to write an alternative future with their browser at its center?
In 2006, Opera didn’t see a business model for open source browsers. Little has changed since then, except that they now have three formidable open source challengers to contend with that have shipped “cloud services”: Mozilla Weave, Google’s Apps and Apple’s MobileMe.
So, although you can build widgets for Opera Unite, you’re still relying on a third party to stay in the room with you… namely, Opera. And Opera isn’t exactly an organization that has behaved favorably towards the open source community in the past. Though that seems unlikely to change, it still begs the question why they believe there is more value is staying proprietary than opening up their browser to outside contributors.
Still, regardless of the decision that they make for their business about open source, there’s a bigger elephant in the room that needs to be addressed:
Is Opera Unite really decentralized?
Opera’s CEO Jon von Tetzchner claims that “Opera Unite now decentralizes and democratizes the cloud”, illustrated like this:
I call bullshit.
Not exactly “decentralized” (more on this in the next section).
Furthermore, if you read through the Opera Desktop End User License Agreement (which you had to if you installed the browser — shame on you if you didn’t!), you would have read section 7: USE OF SERVICES (emphasis mine):
Opera Unite and Transmission and Receipt of Content: Certain features of the Software and Services, including Opera Unite, may allow you to post or send content and/or links to content stored on your computer, that can be viewed by others (“User Generated Content”). Opera Software ASA exercises no control over User Generated Content passing through its network or equipment or available on or through the Services. You agree that Opera Software ASA is not liable for any loss of data. YOU MAY ONLY POST OR SEND USER GENERATED CONTENT THROUGH THE SERVICES THAT YOU CREATED OR THAT YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO POST OR SEND.. You agree not to use Opera Unite to upload, transfer or otherwise make available files, images, code, materials, or other information or content that is obscene, vulgar, hateful, threatening, or that violates any laws or third-party rights, hereunder but not limited to third-party intellectual property rights. We do not claim ownership of any User Generated Content. However, by submitting User Generated Content to us, you grant us and our affiliates the right and limited license to use, copy, display, perform, distribute and adapt this User Generated Content for the purpose of carrying out the Services.
You agree that we are not liable for User Generated Content that is provided by others. We have no duty to pre-screen User Generated Content, but we have the right to refuse to post, edit, or deliver submitted User Generated Content. We reserve the right to remove User Generated Content for any reason, but we are not responsible for any failure or delay in removing such material. We reserve the right to block any user’s access to any content, web site or web page in our sole discretion. Opera Software ASA reserves the right to terminate your account if you use your account privileges to unlawfully transmit copyrighted material without a license, valid defense or fair use privilege to do so.
Besides this hands-on approach to their centralized proxy service, Opera also reserves the right to filter the apps that you can install, a la Apple and their approach to the AppStore (because everyone wants an AppStore, right?):
What are the guidelines for approval of an Opera Unite Service?
These are some of the guidelines that apply to services:
- The service must have a sensible name and description
- The service must not have obvious bugs, so ensure that you test it before uploading
- The service must not contain malicious or destructive code
- The service must not contain or use copyrighted information for which you do not hold the rights
- The service must not contain or point to adult or hateful content
- The service should comply with the Opera Unite Service UI guidelines. Any reason for diverging significantly from the guidelines should be documented in the submission
- The service should serve standards-compliant HTML pages that are viewable in all modern browsers on a variety of devices.
I fail to see how this changes our reliance on “large corporations — who we depend upon to host our words, thoughts, and images” of whom Lawrence Eng spoke so disparagingly.
Owning Your Namespace
So, if it isn’t enough that you have to tunnel your connection through Opera’s proxies and place your service’s existence at the mercy of Opera’s filters, they also want to own your identity, something that everyone also wants to do lately.
In order to use Opera Unite, you have to have a my.opera.com account — perhaps not a big deal until you realize that you’ll be assigned a URL like
http://notebook.username.operaunite.com/ to access your “self-hosted” outpost on the web.
Choosing an Opera Unite name for your computer
This name is basically your computer’s identity on the Opera Unite system — this is the URL that your contacts can go to if they want to make use of your Opera Unite Services, and share them with you.
So, while it’s true that your friends can access your Opera Unite homepage without an Opera account, if they want to host their own Unite server, they’re going to have to both download Opera and obtain an Opera account (and no, they don’t support OpenID).
While there are technical reasons why this makes some sense (mostly to make it easier to get things up and running), it contradicts the whole promise of obviating central control. Indeed, AllPeers (now defunct) and others offered similar solutions previously. Why did Opera not launch with the ability for me to choose my own URL, or at least mask my homepage URL with something that didn’t tie me to Opera…? Oh yeah, that’s right — it’s all about owning the namespace.
At least Google was smart enough when they launched Wave to build in true decentralization from the start, and to choose a patent license for the Wave protocol that demonstrated that their desire was not to own the network, but to compete on it.
Unite & Activity Streams
Now, I know I sound like a curmudgeon, but I’m mostly just disappointed that few other people took Opera to task over the reality distortion field that Opera’s PR machine generated around this technology launch. But, as someone in the office said to me today, maybe no one cares enough about Opera to bother. Yeah, exactly, like I said before.
Still, there is a silver lining to this cloud computing fiasco which NO ONE else covered: Opera Unite supports activity streams!
It turns out that tucked within the Opera application is a directory called “unite” (on the Mac you can find it at Opera.app:Contents:Resources:unite) which contains a bunch of files with the
.us extension (presumably for “Unite Service”). Like Mozilla
.xpi files, these
.us files are just zip files and can easily be decompressed by changing the extension.
Now, I’m not sure how this is being used, but I imagine it’s being used to output updates on the personal homepage of the site… which is awesome.
I wish that Opera had reached out to the Activity Streams mailing list about this work, but I can also understand that they probably didn’t want to jump the hype stungun. Anyway, it’s a huge opportunity (in my eyes!) for them to join the discussion about the open social web (since they have been essential proponents of web standards on the open web to date) and I invite them to share their goals and ideas for this work.
Okay, so I shit all over Opera Unite, but you can’t come out and promise all kinds of world-changing, freedom-enhancing goodness and then not deliver! — worse, to do so when their newest competitor (Google!) is schooling everyone with the perfect example of how to do it right (see: Wave).
While I have problems with Opera’s marketing approach, I do think that it’s useful to have Unite in the marketplace so that I can point to it as an example of what I want to see happen with the Diso Project — though I’m not willing to rest my success on the fate of any particular browser.
Through a combination of technologies like OpenID, OAuth, XRD, Portable Contacts, Activity Streams and microformats, we’ve been moving in this direction for some time, without having to alter the browser. Of course that’s meant that the browser has been conspicuously missing from the conversation, but that too is changing (see Mozilla’s experiment baking OpenID into the browser with Weave), and with Unite, we have yet another vision to contemplate — though I would have loved to have seen Opera embrace more than just Activity Streams out of all the technologies from the Open Stack.
I’ll give Opera some credit — both for using Activity Streams instead of inventing their own protocol — and also for launching a fairly polished demonstration of Unite concept as an alpha. If they really want to offer transformative technologies, though, I think it’s critical that they align their business policies with their marketing rhetoric and technological objectives, down to the code level. Anything less will result in confusion and worse, more posts like this one!