According to Opera, today is the day the Web changes. Its new Unite service promises to radically extend what we do online. The basis of the new platform, which is built into the latest build of Opera 10, is to do away with Web servers owned by strangers and instead connect people on a computer-to-computer basis. The developer's vague advert ( a candidate for the list of worst tech ads ever) fails to convey any of the real benefits of Unite, of which there are many.
Unite is designed to allow you to easily share you data, such as photos, music, notes - in fact, any file you have on your computer. You can share just with yourself (to access your work computer and home, for instance); with selected friends, family or colleagues; or with the whole world. What's more, Unite works across any browser and even supports mobile browsers. This concept itself isn't a new one - services such as LogMeIn and Laplink have been enabling remote PC access for years. In the case of Opera Unite it's the way the service is implemented that makes it so special.
Opera Unite can be accessed from a tab on the side panel in the browser. The first thing you'll need to do is create a free account with Unite. Once you've done this, you can start using the Unite 'services', which are like mini-apps that allow you to perform certain tasks. There are six services pre-installed into the latest Opera 10 build, though obviously the company hopes that developers will embrace Unite and frantically start churning out new services. Here's a look at what you get at the moment though:
File Sharing - Essentially this tool allows you to share any folder on your computer with anyone you like. You just need to click on the 'Settings' icon and browse to the folder you wish to share. You friends can then remotely access the listed files from your computer. You do this by sending them the URL and password generated by Unite. You can select to make the folder public, private, or just limited to those who have the password.
Fridge - This is a stickies-style app that allows you, or someone else accessing your Unite fridge, to post notes. Click the 'Add Note' icon and scribble down a short message, write your name and your email address. Fridge is a nice idea and it looks pretty cool but I feel it could've been better. For instance, you can't drag notes around, and the email addresses aren't hotlinked.
Media Player - There are tons of ways to share music these days, and Unite has added another format to the list. The Media Player lets you select a folder of music on your hard drive and share it with other people, so they can access your tunes. It's a great concept and it proves to be fast and effective - when listening to shared music you can select autoplay, shuffle songs, sort and search. However, the player interface is pretty woeful, compared with the likes of Last.fm, Grooveshark or Spotify.
Photo Sharing - Another folder-sharing too, this time for showing your pics to the World. Images are displayed as thumbnails in overview format, and you can click to open one and view it full screen. There's a zoom tool which allows you to take a closer look at them. Browsing through some of the public folders and seeing the type of pictures that people are sharing highlighted the fact that this service could be used for publishing not-so child-friendly content. It will be interesting to see how this is policed, given that there are no middle-men in the Unite system, which could open the doors for all manner of dodgy stuff being shared between people.
The Lounge - Unite users are able to set up their own chat rooms and invite whoever they like to join in, simply by sending the link. The Lounge is a fairly basic chat service, with few special features or nice emoticons, but there are tools for 'kicking' people and enabling password protection.
Web Server - This tool gives you the ability to host your Web site through Unite, and share with other people. This could be useful for collaboration purposes. As with the other file-sharing options in Unite, you can choose to make your site's files availably publicly, limited to certain people, or private.
Of course, Opera Unite is very much in its infancy. But for a product that's just a few hours old it does show it has the potential to change the way we use the web and, you never know, it could eventually push aside server-based content delivery. At the moment though, there are still only six services, and these are all a bit rough around the edges. However, if developers take this platform seriously enough, and the likes of Last.fm, Skype, Google, Flickr, et al, pay attention we could start to see the biggest innovation in Net technology since Web 2.0. It's about time people started paying attention to Opera - let's hope its 10th time lucky!