Announced Tuesday at Comdex Fall 2001, the test, or "beta," version of Opera 6.0 for Microsoft's Windows operating system brings Opera up to speed with heavyweight competitors Microsoft and Netscape by allowing people to read Web pages written in non-Roman alphabets, including Chinese and Japanese.
"What we're seeing is that the international market is getting bigger and bigger," said Jon S. von Tetzchner, chief executive of the Oslo, Norway-based company. "To an extent, English was the ruling language on the Internet for a very long time, but it's less so now. What we definitely will be seeing are more and more users from China, from all the Asian countries, and this applies to Eastern Europe as well. We see this as a possibility to get into those markets."
The new browser version comes as Opera has enjoyed a burst of publicity courtesy of rival Microsoft, which launched a new version of its MSN Web portal last month that briefly locked out non-Microsoft browsers. Although Microsoft's own Internet Explorer easily accessed MSN pages, other browsers--such as Opera, Mozilla, Amaya and some versions of Netscape--received error messages and recommended that people "upgrade" to Internet Explorer.
Industry analysts downplayed the significance of the 6.0 beta release, noting that the company's bigger ambitions lay in providing browsers to smaller devices than the PC.
Although Netscape's small browser efforts have stumbled with repeated delays, and Microsoft's have met with resistance from operating system competitors, Opera has been moving aggressively to establish itself as the browser vender of choice for small devices.
This summer, the U.K.-based mobile software unit of Psion selected Opera as the browser for its handsets. That agreement came shortly after Opera took the wraps off its deal to supply IBM with small browsers. Before that, Opera released a browser for Symbian's EPOC operating system for next-generation cell phones and other mobile Internet access devices.
"With the PC browsers, Opera is more there to establish a name in the industry. It's not going to be an important revenue source in the future," said Jon Mosberg, equity analyst at the Oslo branch of Stockholm, Sweden-based Enskilba Securities. "The greatest potential is in the mobile Internet...Symbian doesn't want Microsoft to be the supplier of their browser because it could dictate the terms of using the software. That opens up an opportunity for a company that has a browser that runs well on the new devices."
At the technical heart of Opera's internationalization effort is its adoption of the Unicode Worldwide Character Set, a widely supported standard for expressing letters and other characters on computers. Opera's support for Unicode came late because of the challenge of integrating it with Windows 95, Tetzchner said.
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Opera is still hammering out its support for Arabic. Coming "as soon as possible" are browser interfaces written in non-English languages.
Also lagging behind Opera's new browser for Windows are its counterparts for the Linux and Macintosh operating systems. Opera has yet to finalize its version 5.0 browser for the Mac. But the company promised a 6.0 beta for Linux "fairly quickly."
Tetzchner said the Opera 6.0 beta was faster, used memory more efficiently, and had incremental improvements in its support for standards promulgated by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
The company has followed Netscape and Microsoft with new options for displaying windows, including a choice between single and multiple document interfaces, and a persistent bar for bookmarks and search. With the 6.0 beta, people can run multiple copies of Opera simultaneously, preserving different sets of e-mail, bookmarks and other preferences.
E-mail changes include the ability to import e-mail from Microsoft Outlook accounts and support for TLS (Transport Layer Security) for POP and SMTP accounts. TLS is a security protocol under development by the Internet Engineering Task Force.
The browser also comes with a new default user interface.
In a feature reminiscent of information-gathering applications such as Atomica, Opera 6.0 offers Hotclick, which lets people select a word and pull down a definition or translation without leaving the page. To provide encyclopedia and translation content, Opera has formed a partnership with Terra Lycos. Other partners with Hotclick include search engine Google and e-commerce Web site Amazon.com.
Although Opera has enjoyed a loyal following among the Web cognoscenti, and particularly those with animosity toward Microsoft, the Norwegian browser has lagged far behind in distribution, partly because it persisted in charging for the browser long after Microsoft and Netscape opted to give theirs away.
Nearly a year ago, Opera began offering a free version of the browser that comes with advertising. Ad-free Opera costs $39.
That experiment has proved successful, Tetzchner said.
"Revenues have increased, so it's working," he said. "People see that it's free, so more people use it. Then a number of those people want to get rid of the ads, or they just want to support us to make sure we are around."
Paying users of Opera 5.x for Windows get a free upgrade to the 6.0 beta. Paid users of Opera 4.x get a discount of about half off the $39 fee.
Opera is planning to release the final 6.0 Windows browser by Christmas.