Challenging Mozilla, Google, and Microsoft in the nascent Web services arena, Opera June 16 unveiled Opera Unite, a Web service platform which computers create Web sites, chat and share files without letting user data grace third-party servers during the data exchange.
Taking servers out of the equation will give users greater control over their data, Opera hopes. After all, those who run the third-party servers can't access users' data if the computer doesn't send a request for it. Opera said Unite will work on Windows, Mac, Linux, and eventually mobile phones and other devices.
Out of the chute, Opera Unite will let users run Web sites from their PCs with Opera's Unite Web Server selecting the folder containing their Web site and sharing and hosting it from the given Opera Unite URL. Opera Unite will automatically recognize index files and create the Web site as the user designed it.
File sharing in Unite lets users share a file from their personal computers without waiting to upload it by creating a direct URL to that folder. Photo sharing lets users create a thumbnail image gallery of photos without uploading them online.
The Unite Lounge is a self-contained chat service running on users' computers. Contacts will access the chat room via the direct link, which will not require them to sign into any service. The Unite Fridge service meanwhile lets users post a note on their friends' "virtual refrigerators."
Finally, the media player function lets users accessing their MP3s and playlists from any machine and play them directly in any modern Web browser.
Lawrence Eng, product analyst for Opera, explained in a blog post that Unite was created as a salve for the millions of people who are publishing to the Web, exchanging information and expressing themselves.
While users contribute to the Web's content through Facebook, Flickr and other sites, Eng noted that users "don't contribute to its fabric - the underlying infrastructure that defines the online landscape that we inhabit." Eng added:
"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."
Unite is designed to address the "who owns the data?" problem. For example, more than 400 million users house their personal data on social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, while millions of users let Google store their data for Google Apps such as Gmail. Eng suggested Unite will allow programmers to build social networks and other Web services that don't horde users' data.
While current applications for Unite are geared for consumers, Eng envisions Unite will play well in the enterprise. He suggested knowledge workers will be able to leverage collaboration applications such as spreadsheets, documents or wikis, "without having to host them on a third-party site such as Google Spreadsheets or installing specialized applications on a dedicated server" using reverse Ajax or "COMET" techniques.
Such scenarios would likely only work for small businesses and not larger businesses, which tend to put more strict controls over proprietary data. Indeed, analysts have already noted security risks associated with a platform like Unite.