“We have been working on this for a long time and a lot of people have been waiting as well. We’ve been holding off until we thought the product was good enough and now it is,” Jon von Tetzchner, CEO and co-founder of Opera, told MacCentral in a phone interview from the company’s offices in Oslo, Norway.
Opera 5.0 TP1, which has been in beta testing for some time, will expire in one month. It will work with any PowerPC-based Mac running Mac OS 7.5 or later.
Like the Windows version, Opera for Mac will offer two options for using the browser. The user has the choice to download a free, ad-supported version with all features and functionality enabled, or registering the browser at a charge of US$39 that removes the ads, with various discounts applying.
Opera unique in features
While the navigation bar is similar to those of its competitors (see image below), Opera for Mac sports some unique features including the ability the surf in multiple windows simultaneously, full keyboard navigation and graphics disabling.
“We’ve tried to be different and innovate with Opera to make unique features,” Tetzchner said. “One example would be the zoom function. Let’s say you come to a site and it’s using very small fonts you can’t read. With our zoom feature, people with low vision can get access to the same information.”
Other features of the public preview include FTP browsing, GIF, PNG and JPEG image support, support for cascading style sheets, Extensible Markup Language (XML), Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and proxy server support.
“We’re the only browser on the market today to actually view Wireless Markup Language (WML) inside the browser. We’ve been focusing on using the advanced features of XML, so we’re able to take full advantage of that advanced language.”
WML is a tag-based language used in the Wireless Application Protocol. WML is an XML document type allowing standard XML and HTML tools to be used to develop WML applications.
“Another feature is the function to modify Web page colors to reformat them to your specifications,” he said. “This is ideal for people who are color blind. While many people will never use this feature, there’s a large population that can use this because many sites have color combinations that can’t see because of their limited eye sight.”
Speed of critical importance
Despite its countless delays and development problems over the years, the Opera preview appears to match its claim as “fastest browser” in early MacCentral tests, compared to Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer for Mac. Pages load much faster and don’t appear to have a two to four second lag time in completely loading as do other browsers.
“That difference in lag time is an obvious difference,” Tetzchner commented. “We’ve been focusing on making code that’s effective. We’ve made browsers since 1994 for Windows machines to Macs to handheld devices. So the focus has always been on the best use of memory and speed.”
As an example of code size, the non-Java-enabled version of Opera for Windows is 2MB in size, while the Java-enabled version is 9.5MB. In comparison, Internet Explorer for Mac without Java is about 10.5MB, while Netscape Communicator with Java is some 24MB. The Mac version weighs in around the same size as its Windows counterpart.
“We write our own code from scratch unlike other browsers,” Tetzchner said. “Look at Netscape for Windows and you’ll find it has a lot of baggage and is using libraries from Microsoft that account for half the browsers size. We’ve been writing code at a lower level and focusing on speed of slower devices as slow at 16MHz. By doing that, we can assure the faster the processor the faster Opera will be. We pride ourselves on getting the most we can out of the hardware.”
File transfer speed improved
File downloads are also faster with Opera, as proven in our early tests. While Netscape and Internet Explorer managed FTP file transfers in the range of anywhere between 150KB and 320KB per second, Opera zoomed through those same downloads at upwards of 450KB per second. Averages were based on downloading a 1MB file, four times with each browser.
“We’ve found that bottlenecks are the big problem in doing file transfer,” Tetzchner said. “We can’t do anything about network bottlenecks, but we can doing something about browser bottlenecks. We’ve found that some browsers aren’t ready to accept the data when it comes. We’ve been working on improving browser performance in receiving data efficiently and that’s where our improved FTP speeds come in.”
Web site compatibility
Opera preview users will immediately notice some Web sites looking different than they would in other browsers, primarily due to what Opera considers to be poor code usage by designers. In many instances, pages will come up with unreadable text or graphics and layout might look somewhat different. Tetzchner said the blame lies at the steps of Web designers.
“We spend probably half our time or more making sure Opera works with sites that don’t follow the standards,” Tetzchner said. “If Web designers used those standards, they would take better advantage of a browsers features and speed. The problem is they are not doing that and that’s something we have to accept. 95 percent of the pages out there are not following the standards and we do our best to make those sites work well. But the basic rule is if your writing correct code in HTML, it should look very good in Opera.”
Keeping ahead of the competition
Tetzchner is confident Opera will be able to keep ahead of its competitors in features and especially speed as time goes on.
“It’s all a focus on technology,” he said. “We’ve been around a while and haven’t been leapfrogged by the competition. There’s always a reason to be concerned about competition. We try and make the best product and we know customers will use us if we do. If we don’t do that, they’ll go elsewhere. It’s that simple.”
Tetzchner also believes Opera can also stay ahead because its browser isn’t intertwined and bogged down in using other Microsoft technology, which he believes will also pay off in partner relationships. “We’re the only independent cross-platform solution, meaning we can do deals with people like Qualcomm because we’re not in competition with them the way Netscape and Microsoft often are. We can do portal and ISP deals because they don’t look at us as competition, but as a partner.”
OS X and modules part of the future
Opera isn’t sitting on their laurels. The company has bright plans for its Mac browser, including finishing work on a 68K version, and releasing an OS X version by the end of the year.
“We see the future in OS X and we’re taking it very seriously,” Tetzchner commented. “We see huge potential there. We’ve also promised to deliver a 68K version and we will deliver. We’re working in parallel on these products and because they’re using the same source code, there shouldn’t be a very long time between the different versions.”
Tetzchner said Opera plans on delivering viewing of page source code, as well as Java and AppleScript support in its next major version update. “We’ll deliver those features and many more as time goes on. Chat client, mail client, news client, are all in the current Windows version and we plan on offering those in the Mac version in the future.”
While speed and features are often a balancing act for users, the first preview of Opera gives us a glimpse of what a small Norwegian company can offer to shake the foundation of two huge competitors … at least a little.