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Opera casts off legacy code for speed

update The Norwegian browser maker, on the verge of releasing a beta version of Opera 7, borrows a page from Netscape's history to rewrite its software from the ground up.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
update Opera, the self-described "fastest browser on earth," has decided to jettison its legacy code in favor of something a little faster.

The Oslo, Norway-based company is on the verge of releasing a trial, or beta, version of Opera 7, which will resemble its predecessor only in superficial ways. The rendering engine--the heart of the browser, which interprets code pulled down from Web servers--has been rewritten from the ground up over the past 18 months.

Dubbed Project Presto, after the musical tempo-character marking indicating speed and lightness, the rewritten browser was designed to make Opera both faster and more compatible with the Document Object Model (DOM), an emerging standard technology that lets scripts, like JavaScript, act on individual elements of a Web page.

"There were some things that were difficult to do with the old engine, particularly with changing elements in pages," said Opera Software co-founder and CEO Jon S. von Tetzchner. "We felt we needed a rewritten engine to have something that works with all the DOM that is coming out."

Most Web browsers, including Opera, have long provided some support for the DOM, which was meant to replace a nonstandard way of souping up Web pages known as Dynamic HTML.

But Tetzchner said Opera's DOM support left room for improvement that only a complete engine-rebuild could provide.

"This is a fuller implementation," Tetzchner said. "We could have improved support with the old engine, but it would have been more difficult. This is a more future-proof solution."

One Web developer said Opera's closer adherence to the DOM standard would be a welcome change.

"I've worked with Opera since version 3, and I've liked it a lot," said Monte Hurd, a systems architect with Starphire Technologies in Clearwater, Fla. "One of the main problems I've had with Opera has been JavaScript compatibility. In the more recent versions, (DOM support and scripting have) gotten better. But the differences between the way IE and Opera and Mozilla support the DOM, they really add up."

But ultimately, Hurd concluded, Opera and other Microsoft competitors would do better to support the technologies that the market-leading Internet Explorer browser made available, rather than focusing on industry standards.

"What these other browser makers should do is stop complaining about what Microsoft is doing and start supporting what Microsoft is supporting," Hurd said. "People out there aren't reading these specs; they're using IE."

Tetzchner resisted comparisons to Netscape's bold gamble in 1998 to cast off its legacy code in favor of a new browser that would be more in line with industry standards and more easily separable into components. "Our old engine wasn't that bad," Tetzchner said. And indeed the Opera rewrite has proved to be far quicker and less painful than Netscape's, which dragged on for four years before producing marketable results.

Opera Software employs about 60 engineers. When Project Presto began 18 months ago, two of them were working on it; now a majority have left the legacy Opera code behind.

In addition to the new rendering engine, Opera 7 will include rewritten mail and news clients.

Tetzchner hedged when asked about Opera's longstanding boast to be the world's fastest browser. If Opera is so fast already, why rewrite it for more speed?

"We have done tests, and magazines have done tests, and the users are always testing it; and the majority, not all, but the majority tell us Opera is faster," Tetzchner said. "We will work very hard to keep it that way. In the end we're not trying to beat everyone else, we're trying to beat ourselves."

Opera has sought to carve out a space for itself in the hypercompetitive browser market by focusing on handheld computing devices such as set-top boxes and cell phones. Its market share percentage lingers in the low single digits, but the company is one of the few to still make money from charging for advertising-free versions of its browser. The company claims 1 million new installations per month.

Tetzchner said there is interest at the company and from investors to bring Opera public but declined to say when. He also declined to say when the Opera 7 beta would be released, other than "soon."