posted by Kroc Camen on Thu 4th Jun 2009 22:34 UTC
IconOpera have announced the release of Opera 10 beta. New engine, new features, but I'm more concerned about where Opera 10 fits into Opera's history, and certainly their future. Opera have never made any massive strides in marketshare and is Opera 10 really going to change any of that? Read More to find out.

Software is an intensely complicated thing, design has to bubble up right from the bottom, enthused with each person’s passion for doing the best they possibly can. Some software just smells of bored people stuck in a 9–5 and some software simply pops with joy at being alive.

Because software comes from people with differing backgrounds, differing goals and differing skill-sets, it can be said that software comes in different flavours. We may all think that arguing the specifics of one browser being better than the other is all so very important, but we are no better off than children arguing over which ice cream flavour is the best, or if tyrannosaurus-rex is better than stegosaurus.

Opera is not a flavour of software I have ever liked on looks alone. I’ve stuck my nose up in disgust like I’ve been offered a plate of broccoli, and every new version it’s been more or less the same vegetable in a different colour (cauliflower).

Opera 10 beta is here, and even those like myself who are as terribly petty as to go on looks alone are having their concerns addressed.

Last October, Opera hired Jon Hicks, well renowned designer who designed the Firefox logo, to look at the design of Opera (something he himself has lamented about before).

This is a very welcome move by Opera, they have always in my opinion followed the same wrong path that Netscape took. They seem to over-design the application as some kind of Hollywood impression of a browser (or website). Chunky, colourful and tacky so that it’s blindingly obvious to the audience they’re looking at the Internet. Netscape went as far as making the browser itself, look exactly like their website so that you couldn’t tell where one met the other. The downside to this? On anywhere but Netscape’s homepage it stuck out, looked terrible and clashed with the content.

Screenshot of Netsacpe 6

This is the same feeling I have always got with Opera in the past. The problem with this kind of design is that it gets old and tiresome, quickly. We all use the browser a huge amount, often the primary interface to our day. I don’t want to stare at what somebody using Photoshop thought was cool that day.

Screenshot of Opera 7

I’ve used the same Windows XP theme since 2004 because I found one that wasn’t trying to be the flavour-of-the-month. Just plain out-of-the-way usability.

Firefox 1.5 had probably the best, most concise and clearly presented icons in any browser. Firefox 2 crapped all over that excellent work in the name of dull, blurry, flavour-of-the-month (glass) icons.

I don’t mind that interface designs improve, and move on. What I mind is people and companies thinking that Photoshop proficiency will get you anywhere. Designing an interface is so much more than pixels alone. It is the ideas behind it that lead you to creating certain pixels.

What do I think of the new Opera 10 beta interface?

Screenshot of Opera 10 beta's new UI

More of the same. The black bar across the top is overbearing. It wouldn’t be so bad if the small grey gradient wasn’t there to make it look like a vacuum-formed chunk of plastic running across the top of the browser. It wouldn’t even look so bad if the black was matte. The tip of the tabs resting against the edge of the title bar is unnerving. Since Leopard, most apps have moved to the unified toolbar approach, and frankly, Opera looks distinctly out of place. The top of the browser is too heavy, and compared to other browsers, I find my gaze pulled upwards too often.

Here’s a very quick modification I did to show how I think it should (roughly) look like:

Modified screenshot of Opera 10 beta with unified toolbar

This is far less weightier, and simply more Mac-like. It retains the minimal amount of chrome without going as far as Safari’s tab / title-bar combos. Why must Opera go for the tacky look? It just seems to be in their nature.

Beauty is objective, sure, but we’re not talking about web pages, or art here—we’re talking about functional interfaces. Something I have to use everyday, not look at hung on my wall. Quite simply, Opera’s look irks me, always has, in any form.

It’s not just the toolbar, the quirky way of doing anything pervades every dialogue. This, for example, is a disaster of bad design, and doesn’t follow the layout guidelines in the Apple HIG (Apple do follow the layout guidelines and they do matter):

Screenshot of an options dialogue in Opera

And this is my question: Why does this slide? Who logs in, and looks at the Opera icon every day and thinks that it’s perfectly fine? It’s broken in just about every way imaginable! This isn’t just a subjective thing, it’s a matter of having your eye on the ball and looking for every area where you can make the experience better.

The Opera logo is so ugly looking in the dock it’s like walking into the kitchen every morning to find that it’s been painted a new shade of neon, badly. It’s so bad, I don’t want to click on it.

“Looks shouldn’t matter, it’s the functionality that counts!” some may say, even call me shallow for making looks so important. But that excuse simply doesn’t slide. Maybe, if in this world humans were only capable of producing good function or good looks, but not both, then I might agree with you. Design is about both of those things in harmony (e.g. architecture), not one or the other. As far as the competition goes, the other vendors seem to manage good looks and good function too. Opera are letting the ball roll away here because as far as I’m able to ascertain all “design” has meant to Opera over the years is “Photoshop”.

The beta skin is unfinished, and improvements will come. What I’ve seen so far, I think, is just not a radical enough departure from previous practices. It’s a little less twitchy and un-even, but it’s still loud and overpowering.


About the Functionality

Okay, so looks aside, what about that functionality?

The new Presto 2.2 rendering engine supports full Acid 3 compatibility. There’s a lot of features available to web-developers. Certainly it’s the best engine Opera’s ever had, even managing to do a near-perfect job on my personal website which uses extensive amounts of CSS3 and is quite brutal on most browsers. Previous versions of Opera in the past have had poor compatibility with the mess that is the world wide web. This is something that Mozilla really nailed early on and ultimately did help people switch to Firefox full time.

Opera’s JavaScript support has always been an entity of it’s own. I was actually impressed this time I could log into Google Mail and get the same thing as Firefox.

Scrolling is noticeably faster and more responsive than even Firefox 3.5. Opera 10 chews through complex layouts like it was plain text. This really matters. I don’t know how many miles I must scroll a day but responsiveness is yet another thing that irks me about software. Despite constant improvements, Firefox lacks ‘teh-snappy’ that is present in Opera. Resizing windows is significantly more instant in Opera.

That said, I found page-loading to be generally slower than Firefox. At one point it took over one minute and thirty seconds to load Joystiq with nothing but a blank screen, as the HTTP-request hung there on “completed”. I managed to open Firefox, load the site and then load the particular article before Opera had finally received the page. Perhaps Firefox’s HTTP-pipelining is better, who knows. I just found across the usual sites I browse that Opera was slower in chewing through the HTTP-requests.

I could cover, in extensive detail, the features Opera has; it’s like a tricked out Firefox with twenty extensions already installed. Just about everything is here. Mouse gestures, bit torrent client, e-mail client, notes, widgets and so on. But I’m not the person to ask about these things, I don’t need these things, and don’t even want them there.

All of the extensions I have in Firefox are to modify the UI of it, and the webpages I use to be acceptable to me. I have AdBlock / NoScript / Stylish to reshape web sites, I have Menu Editor, Organize Status Bar, Fission and Stop Or Reload to cut the cruft out of the browser. I care more about a streamlined interface then I do a widget engine. I have Dashboard in OS X for that. And if I was on Windows I’d have the choice of 20 or so widget engines including what’s built into Vista / Windows 7. It’s clutter. Bells and whistles that serve some kind of debatable purpose, but nothing life changing and still doesn’t beat a window you can look out of, and a calculator on your desk.

It’s great that so much functionality is there, but I’d much rather collect it as I go along, rather than remove it to begin with and then add it back in. I’m surprised they haven’t baked in a Twitter client yet.

Opera 10 beta also includes a new “Turbo” feature that runs you through a compressing proxy, much like what 3G providers do to reduce bandwidth on their networks. This is really only practical if you are on dial-up, as going through the proxy when already on a broadband connection will only slow things down—Opera brings up a warning accordingly and even lets you set it to turn itself on or off according to detected network speed. Now that’s good feature integration, and something I wouldn’t expect out of a Firefox extension. Do you really want everything you do running through a proxy though? I’m not sure if Opera turbo uses SSL to encrypt the traffic between you and the proxy, but I would find it a bit of a concern if they didn’t. Going through the proxy also means that you end up with ads being served to you on the basis of the proxy’s IP, instead of your own. Makes a difference seeing foreign ads, at least.


Conclusions

There’s plenty of browsers that can show me web pages and let me navigate from one to the other so I see no reason to stick with one whose icon and skin is a constant source of irritation to me. The browser market affords me plenty of good choice so I see no pettiness in choosing something that works good and looks good. We don’t all drive the same car because function is all that matters, we have tastes.

Software can be an emotional thing. We don’t always make decisions based on pure logic alone and the same applies to how we choose our software. If I were looking for the fastest rendering engine, then Opera wins hands-down. But what I care about is longevity; being able to use a tool regularly for a long period of time and that tool doing it’s job and not being a source of nuisance.

If Opera’s looks seem fine to you, then well done, you’ve found yourself a good browser, use it, I recommend it. Personally, I can’t see myself ever switching to Opera unless they dump every pixel of UI they currently have, and start again.

But then you don’t need me to tell you which browser to use. I can safely say that everybody who reads this is plenty smart enough to download any browser they want, try it out, and decide for themselves. So it makes this review somewhat entirely redundant.

I get the point that you have an excellent browser Opera, but you don’t have an excellent brand, and you don’t have excellent marketing, and you don’t have excellent mindshare.

If all the superior engineering, swathes of built-in features, small file size and memory usage still haven’t shifted Opera’s marketshare an inch in all these years then maybe, just maybe, I am right and failure to prioritise looks and design have held Opera back, just as was the case with Netscape 6 onwards and the Mozilla Suite.

The ball, therefore is in Jon Hicks garden and Opera 10’s popularity will be in my opinion largely based on what he produces; sad and petty as that is.

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