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Opera Software puts its browser update onstage

The Norwegian company completes work on version 4.0 of its Web browser and is hawking its software as ready to tackle the growing world of non-PC browsing devices.

Opera Software has completed the latest version of its Web browser, hawking its software as ready to tackle the growing world of non-PC browsing devices.

Opera, which is demonstrating version 4.0 of its browser this week at the PC Expo 2000 trade show in New York City, spent a year and a half building it, rewriting crucial parts of the code from scratch.

That coding rewrite was to make the browser more useful in a world increasingly populated by non-PC browsing devices and Web pages written to accommodate them.

The browser release is right in tune with the general theme at this PC Expo live: Special Coverage year's tech fest. Handhelds and other non-PC devices have dominated most of the news coming from the PC Expo, reflecting the evolution of the technology industry toward an array of devices.

Opera, based in Oslo, Norway, trails Microsoft and Netscape Communications distantly in market share. Opera's 1.5 million customers pay for their browsers, while the major browser makers give theirs away for free.

The underlying technical problem with Opera 3.6 and prior iterations is the same issue Netscape tackled last year when it rebuilt its browser from the ground up: Both needed to create a browser that can be separated into discrete components. In this aspect, both Netscape and Opera have lagged behind Microsoft.

"The main reason for rebuilding the code was to make it more modular," said Rolf Assev, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Opera. "We saw that in the future not only computers and PCs would access the Internet, but handhelds and other devices."

The modular coding structure makes it easier to build versions for various operating systems, including those tailored to small computing devices, Assev said. Opera, which released version 4.0 only for Windows, is in the process of creating versions of it for Linux, EPOC, Macintosh and BeOS operating systems.

Another reason Opera and Netscape have rewritten their browsers is the emphasis both have put on standards compliance. Opera, long hailed by independent groups for its compliance efforts, has added support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 2. CSS is a standard for applying aesthetic and layout instructions across a wide range of Web pages within a site.

Opera 4.0, which had a test release in March, also includes support for Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) 1.1, a protocol for sending information over the Internet. The protocol was drafted a year ago. The browser also supports HTML 4.0.

Assev said Opera's adherence to the standard for Extensible Markup Language (XML) would let the browser read pages designed for the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), a specification for displaying Web information on small wireless devices such as cell phones and pagers.

"In Europe, we are very focused on WAP," Assev said. "Now Opera can read WAP pages, which have tremendous interest here."

Opera has 40 percent of its customers in the United States. Another 40 percent are in Europe, with the remaining 20 percent scattered around the world.

As for email, Opera 4.0 is catching up to Microsoft and Netscape. While prior versions of Opera could only send email, the new version can also receive it.

The browser, which so far has enjoyed only word-of-mouth promotion, is scheduled for some old-fashioned sales and marketing, Assev said.

"This year we have hired some people, and the focus will be to commercialize the Opera company," he said.

On July 1, Opera will raise its browser price to $39 from $35.