Opera Unite Struggles to Keep up With Its Ambitions

[qi:004] It’s been a month since browser maker Opera announced Opera Unite to much fanfare, and it’s about time for a reality check: Its users have been struggling to access the browser’s new server functions in recent days, with file-sharing services unavailable and personal web pages returning server errors. At fault is Unite’s proxy architecture, which was supposed to make networking your browser easier, but has been unreliable at best. Add to this the fact that personal Unite pages have been showing up on Google, and you start to wonder what Opera really meant when it claimed to “reinvent the web” with Unite — start from scratch with a shaky architecture and unresolved privacy issues, just like in the early ’90s?

Opera Unite offers users an easy way to share files and host web sites on their own PC through the Opera browser, and the platform can be extended with third-party services. Unite uses proxy servers to make these services available to the world, even if you’re behind a firewall, and the service offers its users permanent URLs that are resolved through Opera’s proxy servers. In other words: Your notebook running Opera with Unite will always be available at an address like http://notebook.youraddress.operaunite.com, even if you drag it from the office to the coffee shop.

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Problem is, these proxy servers haven’t been working. Unite users have been complaining about frequent disconnects for at least two weeks, and the situation seems to have gone downhill from there. Not only was I not able to keep a persistent connection to Unite on multiple test machines for more than a few minutes in recent days, I also couldn’t find a single Unite service on other users’ machines up and running. Even the suggested links to other users within Unite resulted in error messages.

Opera finally admitted to these issues in a blog post yesterday, stating that “this has been largely due to our Unite proxy acting funny.” However, the post doesn’t say anything about how long it will take to resolve these problems, and Opera didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Connection problems aren’t the only issues that have come up in the month since Unite’s launch. Transforming your browser into a publicly available server also has huge privacy implications, one of them being that Google indexes these pages just as if they were any other web site. So far, around 1,300 Unite pages show up in Google’s index. Some of them are password-protected, but Google’s robots were able to access password-protected shared media pages in at least a handful of cases. One also has to wonder whether users really understand that making their home PC’s photos available without a password means those snapshots will be part of the Google Images index as well.

A third-party developer has come up with a Unite extension that utilizes a simple robots.txt file to block Google and others from indexing pages. It may be a good idea to make this a default feature of Unite, but Opera may be hesitant to do so because it would hurt the product’s visibility.

To be fair, Opera Unite is still in alpha, and one can’t expect everything to work 100 percent from day one. However, the proxy issues hint at more substantial architectural challenges: Opera is reinventing the web with its own servers as a single point of failure, and the fact that it can’t keep up with a small number of early adopters makes you wonder whether Unite will ever be ready for mass adoption.

Image from the Opera Unite developer’s primer.

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