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Opera 7 Sneak Peek

The Opera Web browser client is getting an overhaul, and officials are putting the finishing touches on an upgrade that is sure to please both users and Web developers.

It's the major upgrade to the browser since November 2001, when Opera 6.0 was released for Windows. Since then, the company has been tweaking the current version with several updates.

If Opera has one knock against it, it would be the software's inability to accommodate dynamic content. That's all going to change with the latest version of Opera, according to Hakon Lie, the company's CTO, who oversaw the top-to-bottom redesign of the core code. The overhaul was extensive enough to warrant its own name: Project Presto.

Scheduled for public download as a finished product by the end of the year, Opera 7 has been going through rigorous internal beta testing and will be sent out as a beta soon, possibly by the end of next month.

A time frame for Opera 7 release on Linux, Mac, Symbian, QNX and OS/2 has to yet to be determined, though it will likely be months yet before other operating systems see a compatible version. Opera 6.0 for Linux was released nearly six months after the Windows launch.

The browser has built a loyal, though small, cult following over the years for its form-follows-function approach to viewing Web pages; weighing in at 3.5-11 MB in size, (compared to Internet Explorer 6 at 8-45 MB and Netscape 7 with 32 MB) the browser has been praised for its quick page displays and its ability to meet individual user needs.

What Opera hasn't been able to do is make an impact on mainstream Web surfers around the world, given the established popularity of IE and Netscape. With more than 99 percent of the global market share in browser popularity, according to latest numbers by StatMarket, the "Big 2" have benefited from good marketing and having the browser application pre-bundled on PCs.

Lie said Opera's appeal can be summed up in its file size, which is much less than the competition. Taking out the bloatware found in Netscape and IE leaves less information to be sorted by the browser for every Web page, cutting down page display times and downloading from the Internet.

"We're at least one-fifth the size of an Internet Explorer download and we want to stay that way," Lie said. "We don't want to grow too big. At the same time -- only two years ago -- you could fit the Opera download on a floppy. We have increased in size as well, maybe two or three floppy's now," he joked.

Three key improvements are expected to make a lot more Opera lovers out there.

The first is Opera 7 will support document object model (DOM), a platform- and language-neutral specification that lets developers program and script dynamic content and applications on Web pages.

A browser's inability to support dynamic content is a headache for today's Web developers when programming a portable Web site. A close second would be the proprietary-base code found in IE and Netscape.

In an article titled, "Waiting for the DOM," author Kenneth Tibbets summed it best:

"(Opera) will render a nice-looking page out of CSS (cascading style sheets) and HTML, and it is fast, but it falters when you move from static to dynamic and interactive content," he said. "I can't script Opera events worth a darn."

With DOM support in Opera 7, developers will be able to create pages knowing the browser's users will be able to view the pages.

Eric Costello, a partner at Web development firm Schwa Digital Design, is cautiously optimistic about Opera 7, though he wonders whether Opera's developers are going to stick with W3C standards only, or incorporate improvements made to the standard that haven't been blessed by the organization.

For example Microsoft -- Opera's competitor via IE -- developed an extension to DOM called .innerHTML, which Costello said makes coding tasks much easier and is used by many in the industry.

"I think support for things like .innerHTML, which are not part of the W3C's recommendations but which are supported by both of the most prominent browsers, must be included in Opera 7 if it hopes to continue attracting developers," he said. "But Opera's commitment to standards in its browser's HTML rendering engine and its rigorous support for CSS lead me to have great hope for Opera 7's DOM support."

Tied in with DOM, Opera plans to incorporate CSS 2.1 into its newest version. The working draft, just approved by the World Wide Web Consortium a couple weeks ago, has been in the minds of Opera developers for some time.

Lie is sure his browser will be the first to incorporate the new standard publicly, a standard that makes interoperability between the different browser's more likely.

"We think that's going to be a very important specification where all the browser vendors can find common ground and we think Opera 7 is going to be the first browser to get there," he said.

Besides other functionality boosts to graphical interface and such, Opera 7 will feature a redesigned e-mail client, one that supports the latest standards and runs on any OS Opera supports.

"Called M2, we've added support for the IMAP protocol and completely redone the user interface there," Lie said. "Another significant change is we can support it cross-platform; before we could only offer it on Windows. We wanted to make sure this was available to the other platforms we support."

Overall, the improvements developers plan on incorporating into Opera 7 are enough to make the browser ready for prime time, Costello said. The only reason he doesn't use the browser exclusively, he said, is because of a lack of Opera DHTML capability.

"If the DOM support in Opera 7 is relatively complete and conforms at least as well as Internet Explorer does to the W3C recommendations, then Opera will truly be able to compete with NS6 and IE," Costello said. "In fact with all the other things it has going for it, I would not be surprised to see Opera's user base increase quite a bit when release 7 hits the Web."