Today Opera announced the release of their new ‘Unite’ product. The basic concept behind Unite is something that has been around ever since the beginning of the internet: users aren’t just consumers, but producers as well. Unite will turn your browser into a mini server allowing you to connect to other people and share things directly from your computer. It sounds like a good idea, but the implementation is not something that I find very comfortable with.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the idea is a great one. Being able to share your own material without having to depend on a third party and risk them stealing your stuff (or just locking it up) is a great boon. It would be wonderful if we all just had our own private servers, keyed to our personal identities in some uniquely identifiable way and exert total control over what we put online. However, the truth is that the implementation details of doing something like are very complicated,
For example, if we all started directly publishing our own content, we’d all need massive bandwidth connections and have to pay for them. We’d need to install hardware and software and keep it all up-to-date. We’d need to deal with all the potential security issues related to allowing other people to access our computers. It would also be difficult to maintain any sense of uniformity across the web. Sure, we could agree to some common protocol, but that protocol would have to be set in stone because it’s going to be very hard to get millions of people around the world to all update to a new protocol. The idea is a very good and powerful one, but it’s useless without proper implementation.
That being said, I think Opera has done a lot to alleviate some of these problems. In particular, Unite is easy enough for just about anyone to use. They’ve taken a large part of the maintenance headaches out of the equation, at least for the software component. They also seem to have found a way around the issue of keeping everyone on the same page and playing by the same rules: producers use Opera’s custom system, but consumers can use a plain web browser. But while this strategy means that it’s easy for users to start becoming producers, it also means that people will be locked into using Opera’s product and account system. It’s this part of the bargain that I find somewhat uncomfortable with.
It seems to me that Opera may have solved one problem by replacing it with another one. It’s now easy for anyone to distribute their content from their own computers, as long as they buy into Opera’s system. I don’t use buy in the monetary sense of the term, but in the ‘free as in freedom’ sense. Opera claims that unite will allow “sharing data and services without the need for any third-party Web sites/applications to be involved at all”. Problem is, Opera is the third party. Sure my content is still physically on my own computer, but Opera is the gatekeeper. I feel that’s even less of a deal than uploading my data to Facebook or YouTube. Not only do I now have to pay for all the bandwidth and space I use, I also have to play on Opera’s terms. I don’t see much of a bargain in that. Perhaps I would if I was really more concerned about people ‘stealing my content’, but I honestly think that you shouldn’t put stuff on the Internet if you don’t want people to share it and spread it around.
Unite isn’t for me, is it for you?
Opera Unite is really quite an interesting piece of technology. It’s one of those ideas that no one really thinks of, but once you hear about it either seems ridiculous or very obvious. It’s a great idea to let users directly share their own content, but I’m confused as to who Opera is targeting here. Let’s start with the fact that Opera’s market share is really quite tiny. Using Unite means that people have to go and download yet another browser. Secondly, how many people will really want to pay for the bandwidth prices that they need to in order to really share their own media? Third, even if you do start using it, you’ll need to have your computer on all the time and connected, something that’s not an option for people on the move with laptops or netbooks. Finally, the market of people who will actually use this seems rather small to me. If you’re really interested in becoming an internet content producer, you’re going to want your domain name, be always on and outsource the technical details to people with more reliable services. If you’re the average internet user who just wants to share your photos with your friends, chances are you’re already on Facebook or MySpace and it works good enough. And if you’re savvy enough to be worried about people stealing your content, you know your way around the web and probably have your own server in the basement already.
I feel that Unite is one of those things that unfortunately just missed the proper timing window. Had Opera released this before social networks and YouTube made media sharing easy, they might have had a fighting chance to make something out of it. But with Facebook and the likes deeply entrenched and sharing tools like Google Wave promising a more open model for those who care, Opera seems to be outmatched and outgunned.
Feel free to use the comments to disagree with me.