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Opera Unite Puts a Web Server in Your Web Browser

Opera Software announced a new beta of its flagship Opera 10 browser Wednesday that comes with Opera Unite built in. Opera Unite is essentially a web server that runs inside the browser — instead of just passively browsing the web, Opera Unite lets you share photos, chat and host a simple website directly on your own computer.

The goal of Opera Unite is to allow users to build and host not only websites, but also custom web apps powered by JavaScript, which could be used to power private social networks like mini-Facebooks or mini-Flickrs, collaborative tools like Google Wave or even file sharing darknets. To show off its abilities, Opera is also releasing several apps that run on Unite, including a simple photo gallery maker, a chat application and a streaming music player.

To get started with Opera Unite, you’ll need to download the latest beta version of Opera 10. Once installed, just click the Unite button in the lower left corner of the browser and set up an account. Once Unite is up and running, you can enable the default applications which covering sharing photos, posting messages on your friend’s “fridge,” chatting, listening to music, sharing files and, of course, hosting web pages.

When Unite was first announced, we noted it was heavy on hype and light on delivery. Now that Unite is actually part of Opera 10, we like where Opera seems to be aiming with Unite and look forward to seeing how it develops. As so often happens with Opera innovations, the ideas behind Unite may well percolate up into other browsers as well.

Getting started with Unite is marginally easier than turning on the web server that shipped with your OS, since in this case you never need to leave the browser. Unite also seamlessly handles all the complicated stuff associated with traditional web servers, like opening firewall ports or setting up DNS redirects. Unite takes care of all that behind the scenes.

But Unite also has the same drawbacks that stop most people from setting up home servers using the software provided by your OS — namely bandwidth and uptime.

The bandwidth available to Unite is limited to what your ISP provides. However, at this point in the broadband world, bandwidth isn’t the real issue. The real issue is uptime. Close your laptop and all the data you’re sharing through Unite vanishes. For some applications in Unite, like chatting or posting notes, this isn’t a big deal. For others, like hosting your own website or sharing files, it severely limits the usefulness of Unite.

However, while we wouldn’t suggest using Unite to host a client’s website or anything related to a business, for casual websites or tasks like sharing photos with friends, Unite works quite well. Should you turn off Unite, visitors will see a message informing them that you’re offline, but as soon as you sign in again, everything returns to normal.

The things you share through Opera Unite can be viewed by anyone using any web browser; there’s no need to turn your friends into Opera converts. That said, if you want your friends to also share things through Unite, then they’re going to need to download Opera, just like they would need to join Facebook if you want to share things through Facebook.

While there’s no doubt Opera would like to see Unite steal a bit of thunder from popular social networks like Facebook, it isn’t hard to see another great use for Unite — it makes the perfect darknet file sharing server.

Opera Unite lacks a BitTorrent client for sharing files among your friends — an odd oversight given that Opera 10 already has a BitTorrent client — but even if you’re limited to traditional server-style, incremental downloads, Unite makes a handy way to swap files totally outside the view of prying eyes.

Want to grab the latest episode of some TV drama from your friend? Just ask them to privately share that file, send you the password and you’re away. Opera claims it isn’t logging what you share and so long as you keep the file private, none should be the wiser.

Which brings us to privacy. Unite’s default setting for most apps keeps your files private. Even if someone has your Unite URL, in order to actually see your files they’ll need to know a password that you control.

Alternately, you can opt-in to sharing your data publicly. Be aware that, should you opt to make your photos or other files public, they will be exposed to the entire web, including search-engine spiders. That means changing your mind about the public setting is a bit more complex — just because you change something from public to private, doesn’t mean that content will be immediately expunged from Google’s index.

In short, when it comes to privacy, Opera Unite is much more a web server and much less a protected network like Facebook. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a difference you need to be aware of.

Perhaps the most exciting part of Opera Unite is the ability to write your own applications. Unite apps are built using web standard tools like HTML and JavaScript. If you can build a website, you shouldn’t have any trouble building an application for Unite. At the moment there aren’t too many third-party apps available for Unite, but once the Opera community has a chance to play with Unite, look for the number of available apps to shoot through the roof.

Grab the free download from Opera, and remember that Opera Unite is beta software. The company hasn’t provided a timeline for a final release.

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