On the spectrum of menacing devices, the lowly server falls somewhere between a toaster and... an evil toaster. Which is to say that most people don't think the "clouds" that store so much of their email and files as being either good or bad. But the folks at Opera, makers of an eponymous Web browser with approximately 2% marketshare, would like you to believe they're bad. At first blush, this makes them sound crazy. They are not.
They've just released a new browser called Opera 10, featuring something called Opera Unite. Here's what it does: it takes the files on your PC (music, documents, photos) and lets your computer serve them up just as a server would, so others can browse and download as you allow them. That cuts out the middle-men—Flickr, YouTube, drop.io, YouSendIt—and frees you from the horrific tyranny you didn't realize you were ever subject to.
Here's the source of the dissonance. This is a server:
It's basically a refrigerator, but for data. I've even made it say "roar," but I'm guessing you're still not intimidated. Now this is how Opera would like you to think of servers:
Seems silly, until you use Opera 10, and you realize that when you use someone else's cloud, you subjugate the way you can use your own files: you rely on their features, their speeds, their rules, and their space. Apple's MobileMe only gives me 20GB, for example, and a monthly transfer limit of 200GB. That's why I don't upload all my ripped DVDs to the account and send them to my friends: I don't have that kind of leeway with Apple.
But Opera Unite basically turns your PC into a personal Web server, from which it's easy to share files. Set up is minimal and bone-headedly simple, and you can use it to host all sorts of media; if your music library is on your home computer, you can use the Media Player service to access it all from any computer that's connected to the Internet. There's even a social networking element: people can post things to your "Fridge" (think Facebook wall), and you can allow or disallow people to visit, browse, and download. (The only real negative is that Opera is one of the ugliest browsers that has ever graced my screen. But I'll deal.)
Unite's services, which are free, like the browser itself, literally take two minutes to set up: the hardest part is getting your brain to process how many Web 2.0 services you no longer need, and the crazy sharing you can now do. Opera says the goal of Unite is to obviate the middleman and give you full power to share as many files as you want. This is a good thing. A scary good. I have two computers: laptop and desktop. With a simple URL (http://account.username.operaunite.com) I can view the hard drive contents of either from the browser of any PC, treating each of my computers like a Web server. There's also a specific Unite app for music, where I can access and play my music (or someone else's) through the browser. No syncing, no uploading, no terms of service. Whoa.
Two downsides: you can't embed media (so no, you can't really replace Flickr). It's also a hell of a thing for peer-to-peer file sharing. At first blush, this is a good thing—you no longer need crappy P2P programs to hustle music and movies back and forth to your fellow pirates. But it also paints a huge target on Opera's back: the RIAA is going to hate this thing. Luckily for us, there's no practical way that any amount of lobbying could get personal file sharing illegalized or rebuffed in court. But that doesn't mean the copyright Nazis won't find another way to make Opera Software's life hell.
Still, make no mistake: this is a big deal. Before, setting up a personal server took a modicum of tech know-how. Now everyone can do it. And here's the killer implementation: going to your Opera Unite account shows you "others running this service." Should those strangers have public folders full of music and movies, you can dig in, connect directly to their PC, and download or play. Others can do the same with your PC, and you can check out the "transfers" tab in Opera to see who is downloading what. Congratulations. You are the original Napster.
Check it out for yourself at Opera's Unite Web site.
Can Opera Become to Mobile What Firefox has Become to the Computer
Microsoft's Bing Unveiled, with Sound Effects and a 'Decision Engine'
How to Kill Your Addiction to Google Search and Get More Productive