A rant in O–minor (the decline and fall of the Opera browser)

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Opera has officially released their first desktop browser based on the Blink engine (forked from WebKit). The vision behind Opera 15 and beyond by Sebastien Baberowski (Desktop Team) explains how Opera 15…

…is dead on arrival.[1]

Choose your market

For years, Opera has held a steady 1.7–2% of the desktop browser market. This seems small but comprises dozens of millions of users. More capitalist heads have clearly prevailed at Opera. They’ve struck out for a more lucrative market. Instead of catering to the 2% of niche, expert users that were die-hard, loyal fans, they will create a clone of Chrome/Firefox/Safari that will cater to a much, much wider market.

In terms of fiscal reasoning, it’s not hard to see why they’re going in this direction. They will abandon their previous user base—the hardcore market—to the thankless chore of downloading and configuring their browsers with buggy extensions that offer half-assed versions of the features that used to be high-performance and native.

As one such user, I am saddened, but am also almost certain that there is no turning back.[2] It’s been a good run, though. The browser market will be quite homogenized, but perhaps some enterprising open-source project will take up the flame and build us a better Opera.

Here’s how another user put it in the comments for the article,

“Opera’s main reason was not to spend their time on browser innovation, but to save money. Opera became misinformative, untrustworthy company, disrespectful towards long-time and power users, whose disappointment Opera now tries to appease by extensions and “future” features.”

That has been my impression, as well.

Opera does too have features!

Though many of the features that defined Opera for its users are gone—perhaps to be resurrected—the company goes out of its way to trumpet its innovation in this latest incarnation of its browser.

The article lightly covers the same four f&#king features that they won’t shut up about—Speed Dial, Stash, Discover and Off-road Mode—and tells loyal Opera users that if “you find that Opera 15 doesn’t have a feature you depend upon, first check the growing list of extensions”. In other words, Opera is now just Chrome without Google? All of the out-of-the-box features that Opera users have come to expect have just been shitcanned? And we can all hold out hope that the community develops them for Opera? And we get to spend a shit-ton of time evaluating, downloading, testing and setting up these extensions?

I can “discover” the web just fine on my own without Opera’s help. This feature feels more like an AOL/Facebook/Google+ crutch to get me to read catered content. Where’s the pro version of the Opera browser? I’m browsing on a desktop with a 150Mb Internet connection—Off-road Mode is utterly useless for me. Just as Turbo was useless before.

Stash, the Process Model and Memory Hunger

And shall we guess why they’re pushing Stash so hard? Because they want to train us to stop keeping so many tabs open. You see, keeping dozens and dozens of tabs open brings any browser other than Opera to its knees. Either that, or the browser soon takes over most of the resources of the machine on which it runs and brings the OS to its knees.

Now that Opera has inherited the process model from the Blink engine, well, they suffer from the same issues that Chrome has: it’s just not very good at keeping dozens and dozens of tabs open. Kudos to Opera for at least recognizing the problem and trying to train its users to be more reasonable. It’s a bit weird for Opera users to hear this, though, because that was one of the reasons we used their f*$king browser in the first place: it just worked and didn’t make us change our work habits to accommodate the tool.

Next? Beta? Alpha.

The halcyon days of faster, better and slimmer are, apparently, gone. At least for now. Version 15, though it’s called an official release, is, for an Opera user, not even a beta. It is, at best, an early alpha that is nowhere near feature-completeness.

I understand that you want to trim the fat: some non-browsing features can legitimately be moved to other apps or put to sleep. It’s utterly arguable that a browser doesn’t need it’s own IRC client, an RSS reader, a mail client, something called Unite.

But intimating that “Fit to Width” is too confusing a feature and won’t come back? Removing bookmarks? And sessions? And the whole “Reopen closed windows” feature? And replacing it all with a single-level Speed Dial and something called Stash? And, of course…

Extensions to the rescue/whither Opera Link?

The article goes on to cheerfully explain that there is a bookmark manager extension. This extension comes from Opera itself and is the official recommendation from the press release/article linked above. The first few comments should be enough to scare off anyone. This isn’t too surprising: the bookmark manager in Opera 12 was barely adequate and had seen little love for years. But it worked. It had folders.[3] It synced via Opera Link.

All that is gone. Use Stash instead.

Oh, and anything you configure will be local to that machine until Opera Link is reactivated. No roadmap for that yet. No roadmap for anything, in fact. Just a bunch of promises that “we are looking at your comments and feedback”. There’s nowhere to actually register that feedback and see whether Opera’s considering it (something like Microsoft’s “User Voice” would be nice). I can’t believe I just wrote that I wish Opera would be more like Microsoft in engaging with the community.

Who thought this was a good idea? Hey, maybe there’s an extension for Opera Link? Maybe I can cut&paste my browser together from dozens of extensions? Isn’t that why I was using Opera instead of another browser? And even were I to do this, I get to repeat this configuration on absolutely every machine on which I use Opera because…you guessed it: Opera Link is gone, so I don’t get any data-synchronization anymore. Not for bookmarks (which are gone anyway) but also not for the Wand (which is gone anyway)[4] and certainly not for extensions, which were never synced, even in Opera 12.x.[5]

How in the name of all that is holy is moving bookmarks to an extension a move that offers a “UI simple enough to be intuitive for a consumer who wants a solid, fast browser that just works?

Well, of course everything just works—your browser no longer has any features.

So the check list of features in Opera 15 consists of “show web pages” which comes free by including the Chromium project. Whoop-de-f&#king-doo.

Wait and see

I can’t believe I’m writing this because I’ve always upgraded to the latest version, but: you can stick Opera 15 where the sun doesn’t shine; I’m sticking with Opera 12. I’m happy with that for now, but I know it’s not a long-term—or even medium-term—solution. Sigh.

[1] Disclaimer: I’ve been using Opera since version 3.6. About ten years ago, I joined an early-tester program to help them build their Mac browser (for the egotistical reason that I wanted to use Opera on my Mac). I’m still enrolled in that program, though my participation is considerably less than it used to be.
[2] And no, the article Ctrl+Z of Ctrl+D by Krystian Kolondra (My Opera), in which Opera backpedals and swears that they will restore native bookmarks, is far from reassuring. The product strategy is clear; a bit of backpedaling on one feature doesn’t change very much.
[3] Even though you couldn’t see the bookmark-folder hierarchy very well—or at all on the Mac—when selecting one in the drop-down.
[4] To be honest, I’ve long since moved on to LastPass because a browser-specific password solution was too limiting for my work.
[5] At least Google solved the customization problem to some degree by saving your extensions as part of your account and syncing them whenever you log in from somewhere. That’s a good start. But many of the Chrome extensions are pale imitations of the classic Opera features so Chrome is at best a partially satisfactory fallback position.