A Night at the Opera
By Jason Buck and Stephan Jones
Another browser war is erupting in the computer industry, and more especially in the Mac market place. Microsoft struck the first blow with IE 5. It didn't hit dead on but it had a major impact. Somewhat buggy and non-standards compliant, but overall an OK browser.
There are now several companies poised to strike back. Netscape just gave us a taste of their next attack and it tasted good, though a little bitter. The basic structure looks as though it has promise, being merely an Alpha release however, it is hard to tell how it will really turn out. Right now it is slow and buggy - But you can't complain too much about an alpha.
iCab has potential, but seems to have languished. Despite it's speed, it just doesn't suit John_doe_websurfer55. It's one of those weird German things. Some people love Volkswagons, other people hate them. Slow in development and just plain kooky in design.
What we need is a browser that is lean, fast, feature filled, and takes total advantage of the Mac user interface. Enter: The Mac version of Opera.
Opera Software was kind enough to give moonrockreptiles an alpha release of the Mac version of the Opera browser, so that we could give you, the Mac community, a preview of coming attractions. We now present you with our observations and opinions of this unique web browser.
The first thing that should be noted is that Opera's interface is all Mac from the ground up. This is not just a lousy PC port, as it started out, but a piece of truly Mac software with a non platform specific engine. One of the advantages of using the Mac version of opera is that everything is contained in it's own window, whereas in the windows version all the windows and toolbars are contained within one super-window.
By default there are 3 toolbars: The browser bar (forward, back, home etc.), the link bar, where you enter URL's, and the status bar, which tells you how much progress you have made downloading a page and it's associated files. The fact that the buttons are not all where they would be in IE or Netscape takes a little getting used to (e.g. the back, forward, and refresh buttons are on the right end of the button toolbar, as opposed to the left), but this is certainly not a problem. The option exists to combine the link bar and the status bar, and also you can choose where you want each bar to be: At the top of the window, the bottom of the window, or not there at all.
The first button in the browser bar (From left to right) creates a new window. The second opens a file. The third saves a page as a file. These become extremely handy once you get used to them being there. Other browsers might take a lesson here. The rest are pretty standard though somewhat rearranged. The fourth button prints the page. The fifth copies selected text- or will anyway, but was not funtional in the alpha we recieved. The sixth brings up opera's search engine web page. One would assume that in the final version you will be able to select what search page it brings up. The seventh, eighth, and ninth are back, refresh, and forward respectively. The tenth loads your default homepage, or at least will in the final release (right now it loads the Opera page). The eleventh button may sound a little odd at first. It brings up a dialog for you to enter a URL into like the "Open Location" menu option in Netscape (or at least it will when the feature is implemented ;-). Why put this on the toolbar? It can't be something you would use very often, right? Actually it could be. You have the option of getting rid of the Link bar to free up screen real estate, and in this instance you need a quick and easy way to enter a URL. Hence the eleventh button. Finally the twelfth brings up your hotlist. To the right of all your buttons, there is a field in which link URL's appear as you mouse over them.
The first button in the link bar toggles graphics on or off. A nice feature as sometimes you just want a piece of information from a web page and don't want to waste valuable clock-cycles, bandwidth, or time waiting for images to download and render. The second button "Toggles Document Settings." While we could not seem to get a clear answer on this we believe that (once it is implemented in the Mac version) it will switch between the page being viewed the way the designer intended, or overriding these settings with your own (E.G. what font the text is displayed in, what color it is displayed in or what size it is displayed at). Then you have the URL entry field which works pretty much like any other browser. To the right of the URL entry field you have a scaling menu, which will allow you to view a webpage at whatever percent of it's original size you want to. While we weren't able to test this feature on the Mac as it is currently unimplemented, we have played with it on a PC and it is a really nice feature. You ever go to a web page that was designed at and for a higher resolution than you like to keep your monitor at, and have to scroll not only up and down, but back and forth to read the content? Wouldn't it be cool if you could quickly and easily click a pop up menu and view the whole web page at 70% of it's normal size? With Opera you will be able to.
The small lock icon on the left end of the status bar will show you wether the page is secure or not, by either having a black x throught the icon or having the lock be solid. the second button, a big red X, is the stop button. Next to that we have a field that has a small document icon with the percent symbol (%) "embossed" on it; this is the bar that shows the status of downloading the page and the associated files. The next field displays how many of the associated files have been downloaded out of the total number of files as a ratio (e.g. 7:23). The next one displays the rate at which data is being transferred (4.5k/sec, etc). After that, we have a "timer" as it were that displays how long a page has been loading until it has finished. The fifth, and final, status field displays what the browser is actually doing.
Opera is fast. MAN is it fast. At both downloading and rendering. It simply cannot be stressed enough. Opera for the Mac is eyes sucked to the back of your head, hair being ripped out, chest caving in, oops there goes that poky speed of light kinda fast. It's rendering engine feels similar to iCab's, but it is, in some ways superior. The first thing that loads is the page text, which allows you to being reading almost instantaneously, whilst the graphics load. The manner in which it does this is superior to iCab's; because, where with iCab you are constantly being annoyed as the text is realigned to make way for loading graphics, Opera has already taken the dimensions of all the images on the page and applied them to thier respective spaces, so the text is placed where it is will end up to be from the very start.
We didn't want to rely exclusively on our perceptions of speed. We loaded several dozen web pages with each major Mac browser 10 times each and averaged the results. On the same system with no known variables (Except for the Browser of course) we found Opera to be the fastest. While Opera was the fastest, we were surprised to find out by how little a margin. We realized that the reason it felt so much faster is that it rendered the text IMMEDIATELY and then worried about graphics. We also found it surprising that in our testing Netscape beat IE AND iCab. Our findings conclude that this alpha of the Mac version of Opera is: 1.8% faster than Netscape 4.7, 3.3% faster than iCab Pre 1.9, and 7.2% faster than IE 5. We assume that much of Opera still contains much debug code, so we expect the differences to be more drastic in the final release.
We only found one important downside to Opera. Because it so strictly follows standards, and because most web pages do not, many pages didn't look quite right in Opera. But Opera can hardly be blamed for adhering to standards.
Most of the rest of Opera is only partially implemented or not implemented at all. We will cover more as Opera develops. Here are a couple of screenshots of the Mac version of Opera in action.
Not only was Opera Software rad enough to give us an alpha to preview, but they went a step further and let us interview Opera's lead Mac programmer Ralf Menssen. Our questions are in blue, his responses in red.
What is the expected price for the Mac version of Opera?
It will be the same price like the PC version. [$39 for a non-educational user]
What is the current timeline for availability of the Mac version?
We are 8-10 weeks behind the PC version which has gone public beta two weeks ago.
What, if any, support will exist for Java?
We'll support MacOS Runtime for Java (MRJ) from Apple.
We noticed that most pages that use a CGI script don't work right under the Alpha of Opera we recieved. Will CGI be supported in the final release?
Definitly yes, we will have all the features of the PC version (www.opera.com/new.html), but will not include an email client or a news reader in the first version. There are good programs out there doing these jobs, we concentrate on making the best browser for Macintosh. The feedback we got from Macintosh users so far is, that this is exactly
Would we be right in assuming that the Mac version will be distributed as a time-trial like the PC version?
Will there be a Carbonized version of Opera?
Yes, but we can't yet say if the very first version will be carbonized since this is dependent on others.
Will there be a Cocoa version of Opera?
Yes, our concept is a three way strategy: First get out a version for PowerPCs running System 8.x and 9.x, using the available features like the keychain manager. Shortly afterwards we will release a version for older Macs which can be run under system 7.6 and 68k processors. We don't want to forget about all these million Macs out there, still doing their job. And in an joined effort with our Unix/Linux department we will create an Opera for MacOS X, which takes advantage of this totally new OS.
Tell us about the experience of porting Opera to the Mac? What was easy to do and what was challenging?
The core was designed to be portable, so this was not a big problem. Problems appeared when it came to the Macintosh specifics like file-i/o, communication. And it was some work to integrate the rendering part of the core with our framework. The user interface itself was written from scratch for the Macintosh. We want Opera for Macintosh to be a *real* Macintosh application, not a PCish program.
How many people are working on the Mac port?
Why has the Mac port taken so long?
When the port started, it was based on version 3.6. The basic concept at this time was to emulate the Windows API. This concept was a bad idea. So when I joined the company last August, we made the decision to forget about it and start from scratch with version 4.0.
After the release of the Mac version, should we expect it to retain parity with the PC version, or as so many companies have done before, will Mac users have to wait 6 months or more to recieve the new features and capabilities of the PC version?
There will allways be a little delay, but I hope we can keep it down to 4 weeks. I see it positive, every new release of a software has some minor bugs in it. If they are related to the core, in the first Macintosh version they have already been fixed.
What is Opera programmed in?
How long have you been programming for the Mac?
I'm a Mac programmer since 1987.
What else have you programmed for the Mac?
To mention all would boost the available space here. I wrote SW for CD-ROM retrieval in the late 80's, control panels/drivers for mice, keyboards, joysticks, graphic cards in the 90's, programs for professional video editing, computer animation movies, etc... All for the Mac!
What level of security should we expect from the Mac port of Opera? Will there be a version with 128-bit encryption?
Yes (see feature list).
iCab offers you the ability to render a page as Netscape or Internet Explorer would, or you can render it according to the HTML standard. Will Opera have similar functionality?
We will do what the standards ask us to do. I don't see any sense in emulating bugs of competitors software. More and more people use Opera, so many web designers test their pages with Opera, too. We have a clear opinion on that: we comply to the standards. Dot.
What plug-in support will Opera have? Will it be able to use Internet Explorer or Netscape plug-ins? Will it be compatible with Flash, Quicktime, RealPlayer, Vivo, etc.?
Yes, we will have the Netscape plug-in interface, so it will be compatible to these products.
Will Opera support any kind of "skin" architecture? So that you can easily change the appearance of your browser?
Yes, at least you will be abe to change the button set by any set of your choice.
Will Opera be able to autofill forms?
That's not planned yet. But we fill in username/password fields (protected by the keychain manager) as they are used all over the www. Imagine having 20 accounts at different web services, like I do, you can't remember 20 different passwords, do you? So you give them the same. If one gets public, your other 19 are vulnerable, too. With keychain I only remember one password, which never leaves my computer, and all 20 services get different and complicated passwords. This increases my security on the web.
Why do you think that people will pay for Opera when they can have Internet Explorer or Netscape for free?
Why do you take a bus or a taxi and pay for it, when you can walk for free? Same thing! It's worth the little extra money. We simply make a browser and that makes us different compared to some of our competitors -- people realize that. Have you ever asked why other companies invest so much money in writing a browser and then giving it away for free? They want their money back one way or the other, believe me. Our model is more trustable, I think.
Will the Mac port be available as a public beta, as the PC version often is, before a final release?
Yes, we have a small alpha tester group, which has hands on current versions, a much larger beta tester group who will be involved soon, and when it's getting closer to release date, we will publish a public beta.
On behalf of entire moonrockreptiles staff, we thank you for this opportunity and hope that you will assist us in offering continuous coverage of this exciting product as it is developed.
It was a pleasure!
Well, that about wraps up our first article on Opera. Looks like it has much potential and we can't wait for the final release. We intend to do several follow-up stories on Opera as it develops. If you have any questions about the Mac port of Opera, please post them in the moonrockreptiles forum and we will either get them answered there, or in our next follow-up article. We would like to thank Shae McKean, Public Relations Manager at Opera, without whom you would not be reading this article.
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