Opera releases talking Web browser

Rival of Internet Explorer and Firefox adds voice interface, RSS features in test version.

Opera Software released a test version of a major update to its Web browser software Thursday, intensifying its efforts, along with open-source rival Firefox, to cut into Microsoft's market share.

The new, as-yet-unnamed software adds stronger support for RSS (Really Simple Syndication)--a technology widely used for automatic access to blogs and other material--and technology that allows users to navigate through voice commands and have Web pages read to them.

The company said it has made enough improvements to turn the final version of this beta download into a major new release, instead of an ordinary incremental upgrade.

"The new Opera version has dramatic improvements under the hood, in addition to some very helpful new features to welcome more and more users to take advantage of browsing the Internet in a fast, safe and customizable way," Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner said in a statement.

Opera has benefited over the last year from a growing dissatisfaction online with Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer Web browser, driven by repeated security concerns and the passage of years between IE updates.

However, the lion's share of the public's experimentation with alternative browsers has gone to the open-source Firefox browser, which has been downloaded more than 12 million times since being released in final form in early November.

According to Net metrics firm WebSideStory, Internet Explorer's share of the U.S. market fell from 93.2 percent to 91.8 percent between early October and early December. Firefox grew from 2.7 percent to 4 percent, while "others"--largely Opera and the Apple Safari browser--grew from 1 to 1.25 percent.

The new Opera beta version also includes user interface improvements such as more browsing space, cleaner menus and better printing support, the company says. The browser also now works with Google's Gmail, correcting a problem that had led some Opera users to switch to Firefox.

The voice support is powered by IBM's Embedded ViaVoice technology, which Opera licensed early in the year.

Like other releases, the new beta is available as an ad-supported free download from the company's Web site. Final versions of Opera browsers are also offered in ad-free editions with the same functionality for $39.

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