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Surprise! Opera 5.0 is Free!

Most insiders agree the browser war between Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Inc. was over a couple years ago, but to hear Opera Software's rave about its newly-released Opera 5.0 for Windows, you'd swear they were still in the thick of things.

It's all part of a new advertising blitzkrieg. Opera's angle is that 5.0 it is free, which is certainly elementary when you consider that Microsoft (with roughly 87 percent of the market share) and Netscape (about 12 percent) have been offering it free for years.

But you can't blame the scrappy Norwegian outfit for trying and its 1.5 million users should be pleased with the new version, the original of which has long been considered the "third browser" to the leading companies.

Not only does the launch come relatively on the heels of its 4.0 launch in June 2000, but Opera is particularly proud of he fact that it accrued the loyal user bank without tireless marketing, which means it has had to charge users per license.

Not anymore. Now Opera is playing ball like its larger rivals -- the new sponsor-supported version offers users a $39 value in return for having one single banner ad in the browser. What's more, users also have the option of losing the "sponsored mode," but this would cost them the $39 fee.

Ads appear one at a time in the browser and their categories are easily modified in the advertising section in Preferences. The goal is to serve advertising that users will want to see, akin to letting users turn on the TV and choose to see, say, strictly car commercials.

Hakon Lie, chief technology officer, vows that the new ad feature will not slow Opera down.

"The banner-sized ad is quite small, and they are downloaded into the browser only once a week, to be cached for later use," Lie said.

On a more general note, Lie talked about the way Opera is positioning itself in the browser war.

"I think it's an exciting time for us," Lie told InternetNews Radio Wednesday. "We're a small company. We've never done anything like this before. We need the revenue because we're not part of a big organization. But we see this as a great opportunity and we hope users will like our product."

Lie said he hoped the browser's small size, speed and user friendliness will hook more users. Though no deals with ISPs or other partners have been worked out yet, Lie said Opera is willing to give them a cut of the advertising income and a browser that will not compete with them.

"For example, if they distribute IE, as many of them do, they will find themselves competing with IE," Lie said. "Because MSN is an Internet provider and a major portal, which competes with the portal of the ISP. ISPs increasingly realize this -- that Microsoft is not their friend even though they let them distribute IE. In fact, by distributing IE, they are setting themselves up for some tough future competition."

To get its brand further out into the wired world, Opera 5.0 will be distributed on millions of CDs slipped in computer magazines as well as by other software makers and some of the Internet's major Web sites.

One only needs to hear Chief Executive Officer Jon S. von Tetzchner speak to know his firm is brimming with confidence. Tetzchner firmly believes his Opera browser, which has evolved over five years, is the fastest browser on the market in terms of rendering pages and functionality.

"Today Opera's status as just an alternative browser for the most Internet savvy users is ending, and we place ourselves firmly in the middle of the ongoing browser war," Tetzchner said Wednesday in a company statement.

Dean Kakridas, manager of strategic alliances at Opera, said rivals Microsoft and Netscape have focused on strengthening the integration of their browser, portal and ISP services, putting them in direct competition with independent portals, ISPs and contents sites

This is where, Kakrida