Take My Browser -- Please!

by Frank Willison

I'm starting a new political movement. I'm calling it the Arbuckle Faction. I hope you'll all join.

Older readers will remember Yuban Coffee, an early attempt at a gourmet blend. At the end of Yuban commercials, an old geezer with the solid Yankee name of John Arbuckle would somberly intone, "You get what you pay for." I didn't drink the coffee, but I support that philosophy.

Members of the Arbuckle Faction won't sign up for a free cell phone if they buy cell phone services. They'll pay for the cell phone and then they'll pay for the service, in each case simply paying what each is worth. They won't take frequent flyer miles as a reward for eating in a restaurant or staying in a hotel; instead, they'll ask for a refund that matches the cost of the promotion. And they won't use Internet Explorer, Netscape Communicator or Navigator just because they're free. They might go out and buy the Opera web browser instead.

Opera is the web browser I use, and unlike Explorer, Communicator or Navigator, it costs money (US$35.00, at the time of this printing). I paid the money happily because I understand the relationship between Opera Software and me: they make a product I like and I pay them money to use it. On the other hand, I don't understand why Microsoft and Netscape want to give me their enormous browser/email/newsreader/general-lifestyle-enhancement Web software. It cost them a lot of money to develop and support those complicated packages. Are these packages worth nothing? I suspect the worst, of course. Late one night, drowsy, I'll click on the wrong button and discover that I own swampland in Florida. I may be agreeing to receive, one volume a month, the Bigger Than Time/Life Picture Enclycopedia of World War II. I may inadvertently buy, in three installments, a Supermodel-endorsed bust enhancer. All I know for sure is that these companies have some way to recover their costs and a tidy profit from me, but they're not telling me about it.

Opera has a lot going for it: it's small, for one thing: 1.7 megs. (Check your browser software to see how big it is.) That's a decent size for a web browser, software which, after all, doesn't do all that much. When I see that I need 32 megs for a certain browser download, I feel like the savvy and tragic Trojans who must have said, "Well, it is a nice horse statue, but isn't it awfully big?" Because Opera is small, it's fast. It loads quickly and displays your chosen page before you expect it to. Also, because it's small, you can run it on older PCs that strain under the weight of the popular browsers. How much is it worth to you not to upgrade your current machine?

Opera has also mapped its entire command set to the keyboard, obviating the need for the mouse, making it the browser of choice for the visually impaired and RSI sufferers.

There are lots of other nice features of Opera, too: it handles multiple windows extremely well, its interface is highly customizable, and, in my experience, it's very reliable and doesn't crash the machine. You can find out more at www.operasoftware.com.

Opera has some drawbacks, of course. It currently runs native only on Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and 98, and Windows NT. (Linux, Unix, and OS/2 versions are in the works.) You can use it to send mail, but not to receive it (but it does link nicely to whatever mail program you are using). It can't handle Java code. These problems, they say, will disappear in the next major version, v4.0.

Opera's main advantage to me, however, is that Opera Software has no incentive to please anyone but its customers. You won't find Opera proprietary file formats or Opera extensions. They support the software their customers use; other than that, they support the standards. It is these standards, after all, that leave Web users in control of the Web. If any one set of proprietary software takes over the Web, we'll all be at the mercy of the owner of that software. Keeping the Web open and accessible to all is worth $35.00 to me, even if I don't get frequent flyer miles.

O'Reilly & Associates prides itself on lessening the information pain of its users, so we're not religious about the technology we write about. Our new book Dynamic HTML: The Definitive Reference covers in excruciating detail all the Web development technology that the current melange of standards and proprietary extensions require. No developer can afford to dismiss the requirements of either of the powerful Microsoft or Netscape user communities. But it's nice to know that there are still browsers whose goal is to be simple and to supply only what is common to all of us. O'Reilly books document everything, but we serve our customers, not the vendors, and we're fond of software that does the same.

You can download Opera for a thirty-day trial and test all these claims I've made. If you don't like it, it's as easy to uninstall and it is to install. If you do like it, buy it. Order now and you'll get a free membership in the Arbuckle Faction.