Opera Software has responded to criticism of early versions its Web browser, particularly regarding ease of use, by launching an update--Opera 8.
Although not a radical rewrite, Opera 8 provides a cleaner default interface, with fewer toolbars and menu options showing up after installation. The company is hoping this will make Opera easier for first-time users.
In a first, Opera plans to support Microsoft's cell phone operating system.
"A lot of people told us we had a good browser, but it was daunting for a new user," Jon von Tetzchner, Opera's chief executive, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday. "In Opera 8, we've focused on having a basic browser, but with a difference."
The company also added tighter security against Internet fraud and new voice technology as part of its effort to win users away from market leader Microsoft.
Other notable new features include support for Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), Opera's small-screen rendering technology, and voice browsing. With voice browsing, a computer-generated voice will read out text that the user highlights on a Web page.
The interface remains fully customizable, so experienced users can still get to features in the browser quickly, once they've configured the system.
Opera is often portrayed as a David against a Microsoft Goliath, but it also faces a formidable rival in the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox, which has gained about 5 percent of the U.S. market since its 2004 launch.
"It's a little bit surprising that Opera hasn't grown more when Firefox increased their market share so much," said Ole Andre Hagen, an analyst at ABG Sundal Collier.
Opera supplies browsers for both desktop PCs and for mobile phones from carriers such as Motorola and Nokia. The browser squeezes Web pages into a thin stack to give, according to Opera, easier and fuller viewing than on a Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP, phone.
As with previous versions, Opera's free version has advertising built in, while a paid version without advertising is also available. Most other browsers are available for free without advertising. Payment represents a psychological barrier to some people.
Open source "not the solution to all problems" Opera also faces philosophical objections from some quarters for not being open source. But von Tetzchner believes a product doesn't need to be open source to be good.
"Open source is a good thing, but it's not the solution to all problems," he said. "If we only had open source and no commercial applications, that would be bad--we need competition."
People may "end up paying for other browsers anyway," von Tetzchner said. "If you need support, that will cost you. One phone call to Mozilla can cost as much as buying Opera."
The extra security in the new version of Opera seeks to guard against phishing attacks--when an attacker tricks users into visiting a Web site masquerading as a trusted site, and then coaxes them into typing in their bank account number or other sensitive information. Phishers often lure victims to their Web sites using e-mails that have subject lines such as "account update needed."
Opera's solution is for the browser to display the underlying security certificate of each site--an icon of a yellow padlock on trustworthy sites--to help users judge reliability. The browser will also show where pop-ups come from.
The small-screen rendering technology included in Opera 8 comes from the company's work in browsers for mobile devices. The company thinks that the future of the Web lies away from traditional PCs.
"Looking forward, the biggest change we will see is the proliferation of non-PC Internet devices," von Tetzchner said. "Cross-device support will be important."
This should be the spur for Web designers to start using standards-based mark-up for everything, even if they're not specifically targeting alternative browsers, according to von Tetzchner. "Using CSS and Web standards, you can supply something that will work on different devices," he said.
More than 10,000 downloads of the new version of Opera reportedly were recorded in the first 30 minutes of the software being made available.
Jonathan Bennett of ZDNet UK reported from London. Reuters contributed to this report.