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[Photo of the Author]
by Georges Tarbouriech

About the author:

Georges is a long time Unix user. Being a bit fed up with "enormous" web browsers, he is very interested in the smallest ones.



Singing in the web



In a previous article, I said the Opera web browser hasn't convinced me yet. The new 5.0 version for Linux being an improvement, I changed my mind a bit. Here is a small review of one of the lightest web browser available for Linux. You can get a free copy of Opera 5.0 from http://www.opera.com


The web browser jungle

Almost 10 years ago appeared the first widespread graphical web browser: it was called Mosaic. It was a revolution, sort of, since it was a new way to browse the web. That was quite a far cry from the tools we used at that time to connect to the BBSes. This software was rather small in size and nevertheless it was able to display color pictures, color text... A bit later came its "son", named Netscape. Of course, it was already a bit bigger in size. This last became a reference for web browsing for many Unix systems. Next came the Windos version, what gave M$ the "idea" of creating its own browser. That was the birth of the one and lonely Internet Exploder. This is when the war began between Netscape and IE. At the same time, developers were creating graphical browsers for other systems such as Amiga OS, NeXTstep (as a matter of fact, the very first one ran under NeXTstep and was called WorldWideWeb), and later BeOS. They succeeded in releasing web browsers small in size and yet as good as the two heavy weights. Let's mention some of them: AWeb, IBrowse, Voyager for Amiga OS, OmniWeb for NeXTstep or NetPositive for BeOS. There is another great web browser called Voyager provided with QNX 4 RTOS. Of course we can't list them all.
If you want to know the whole story concerning web browsers, have a look at http://www.w3.org/History.html.
Meantime, CPUs were getting more powerful thus providing more resources. The amount of RAM on computers grew as well as hard disk sizes. This definitely was the beginning of the "factories" we know today even if we still call them web browsers. We won't talk about what happened next concerning the war between Netscape and IE. The point is: today a web browser is about 15 MB big, without taking into account the libraries, the plugins... That is - monsters! And what are the alternatives ? Well, not much, since most of them rely on Netscape (or Mozilla) libraries. That means even if the browser is rather light it still needs those libs and becomes as big as the "models". Does this mean those browsers are better than the smallest ones ? This is just a matter of opinion. But, many people are still using "small" computer configurations, and opening those tools with a 200 Mhz CPU and 32 MB of RAM is not that funny. This is where the Opera alternative for Linux comes in.


Getting Opera

Opera is a Scandinavian company based in Norway. These Scandinavian people are often innovative and we owe them some great software. Let's mention for instance ssh, (the commercial version) from Finland, or one of the greatest software ever, Scala, a multimedia tool born in Norway around 1987. This last allowed the Amiga platform to do unbelieviable true multimedia presentations or nice display systems years before other OSes. This had to be said!
Going to http://www.opera.com, you can download the latest 5.0 version of this web browser for Linux. You can get it as rpm or deb packages or as a tar.gz archive. Since it relies on Qt, you can choose binaries statically or dynamically linked. If you select the last one, you need to have Qt 2.2.4 installed on your machine. We won't talk about installing Opera, since it's obvious.
Opera is a commercial product. One of the big difference with previous versions is that you can get Opera for free. No more 30 day trial period. The drawback is that you permanently get advertisement banners running at the top of your browser. If this annoys you too much you can register for 39$.
For information, Opera is also available for Windos platforms, BeOS, Mac and EPOC. An OS2 version is on the work. Concerning Linux, the provided versions are for i386, SPARC or PPC.
Obviously, we'll concentrate on the Linux version. By the way, we didn't test the BeOS version, nor the Windos one.


Using Opera

Like every graphical browser, Opera is quite easy to use. You won't need a long time to get used to it. Preferences are quite "rich" and there's a lot you can do with them.

Preferences window in opera 5.0
They are so rich, that it may take a while before you get what you want to. Font management, for instance, is a bit "heavy", but this is only my opinion.

Talking about features, Opera offers drop-down history. That is, a small arrow appears next to the previous or forward buttons: clicking this small arrow displays the list of the pages already visited during a session. This has been available in Netscape for a while... but with the small arrows at the top:-) Of course, this doesn't mean you don't get the other types of history anymore. You still can reach the previous visited pages from the URL history or the history menu item. Not a bad idea!

A very good is feature is the ability to switch image loading on and off at any time from a button conveniently placed directly on the progressbar next to where you enter the URL. Netscape had something similar but you had to go into a deeply nested menu under "Preferences". As opposed to Netscape the delayed loading of images actually works all the time. This feature improves fast web browsing: You just click your way through the webpages until you find the page you want to see then you switch on images. Navigation is a lot faster this way since you do not have to wait for all the images on all the pages.
[Find bookmarks]
Find bookmarks
The "Find bookmarks" function is also good idea. You can search your bookmarks with a wild card expression.

Another great feature concerns HTML validation. Right-clicking on an HTML document takes you to the World Wide Web Consortium. The validation service then tells you if the HTML code is valid or not. This is a very useful way to check your code when building a website. It could be the end of the numerous unreachable websites... as soon as other browsers editors provide the same feature!!!

This deserves some more explanation, even if it seems a bit off topic. More and more websites are built with proprietary software thus not complying with w3c recommendation. Even worse, every browser behaves in a different way. As a result, depending on the browser you use, you're able to reach a website or not! Silly, isn't it ?

So, please, Internet "professionals", stop using proprietary software to build your websites. Stop using Java for everything, especially when not needed. Stop using those pieces of s...oftware to write your HTML code: it's not HTML anymore !!! You can remove 50% of what was "automagically" generated. (I won't give any name, but I think you can guess what I'm talking about...) That's the first part of the problem.

The second part comes from the browsers themselves. For instance, why does Netscape 6.0 for Linux understands code differently from other versions of Netscape? And, by the way, this has nothing to do with other Netscape versions, since you can have the same problem with many other browsers. Don't let's talk about Exploder. What I mean here is: some HTML code will work under Netscape 6.0 but it won't with any other browsers: what you get with them has nothing to do with what you expected!
Another well known problem with Netscape 6.0 for Linux comes from its behavior with a local Apache http server with no active DNS: it takes quite a long time to find that server. It doesn't freeze, like its older brother can, it just hangs, waiting. With Opera, I never encountered such a "frozen" situation. I never had to wait for it to find the http server, either.

As a matter of fact, there are a lot of OSes and a lot of browsers. That means everybody doesn't use either Netscrape or Exploder. If there's a Consortium it must be for some very good reasons. If most of the editors don't respect the w3c recommendation, very soon, we won't be able to connect to most of the websites. Is this done intentionally or not? Well, the answer is up to you...
I know I already wrote such a thing, but this is to insist a bit more. Here at LinuxFocus we do a lot of testing to check that every browser can reach us. Everyone should do the same. Well, this is only my opinion.
Sorry for the digression: I know, it's quite usual in my articles: it's just to keep you awake and to see if you follow:-)

Let's go back to Opera.
Opera 5.0 for Linux can reach some websites unreachable with Netscape 4.77 for Linux (for instance). Surprising, isn't it? Good point, anyway.

On the other hand, it can have problems with CGI scripts, for example, where Netscape and many others work fine. This shows two things: every browser reacts in its own way. To separate multipart form-data encodings Netscape and MS IE use something like:
With some random number. A CGI script written to expect such data will fail with opera because Opera does not use the exact syntax already in use by other browsers. Instead it uses its own separators:
Probably this is standard conforming, however unnecessary diversity certainly makes things more complicated. Opera does not add a new feature here. It's just different. We could say, the problem comes from a badly written script, but this is not always true. Opera is also unable to send larger multipart form-data. That seems to be a real bug. It just stops in the middle of the data transfer and the user waits forever for the page to complete.
Another point: the same browser works differently according to the OS where it runs. All this is obvious, but many people seem to forget about it.
Opera has an option to identify itself as IE or Mozilla, but this doesn't solve the above mentioned problem.
To be a bit more "technical", Opera is HTML 4.01 compliant, XML 1.0 compliant and XHTML 1.0 compliant. It also supports CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) level 1 and 2. Not that bad! Unfortunately, that's not enough. Opera is not to blame on this matter since this is true for many browsers and they have problems too.
The display in Opera behaves a bit like OmniWeb for MacOS X (for those who know). It takes some more time for a perfect display: it has to adjust after loading like every browser but seems a bit slower than a few others, at least on small configurations. Otherwise, it's rather fast. I wouldn't say the fastest web browser (I'm not working for Opera), but a rather fast one.
What does Opera look like ? Here it is:
[main opera window]

As you can notice, nothing special, but you can change a lot of things concerning the appearance. For instance, you can have an Hotlist window on the left hand side. You can choose to display a window bar, a bookmark bar... It's quite "customizable".
By the way, checking the logs from a local http server, you can notice Opera opens multiple connections at the same time, like what you could get using various instances of any browser. This also may explain the adjustment time above mentioned: that is, Opera loads everything at once and then "improves" the display. Thanks Floris for pointing that out to me.
Even if it's quite subjective, Opera seems fast querying databases. This is an impression since I never really checked the answering time. Again, this can be noted on small configuration. Using fast machines make things much less obvious.
Opera provides you with a huge list of bookmarks too. You can do what you want with it. I mean, my first job with a web browser is to remove the provided bookmarks... but I'm a strange guy!
There's another positive thing: the online help. It's rather complete and well organized... and it doesn't take you to their website.
Let's say a few words about menu. Some nice features there too: for instance you can get a print preview. You can also reload a page every x minutes: just select the menu option and define the time before reloading.
Opera is full of this kind of small improvements. It's often simple but very useful.
Another nice feature concerns the transfer window. When you download a file, clicking in the action button (icon of the file) displays a context menu with a lot of options. You can resume transfer, cancel it... Again, it's very useful.
There's a lot more we could say about Opera but this would made a very long article. The best way to discover it, is to test it!



Opera's approach is quite interesting, since it proves you can browse the web with rather small tools. You don't need about 40 MB of libraries, executables... That's the first point. Very few vendors understood this. By the way, this is true for most software and not only for web browsers.
Nevertheless, is that enough to change things in the near future ?
I don't like that much futurology, but how long will we use web browsers, the way we use them today ?
For instance, check what Rebol is doing. If you don't know this great "products line", you can have a look there. But since this article has been written, Rebol evolved a lot towards lightweight distributed applications. Isn't that the next way of working using the Internet? Rebol already proved we don't really need browsers anymore, and distributed computing could be the next step.
This doesn't mean web browsers will disappear tomorrow, but I believe they should be put on a diet...
Then we can think Opera is on the right way. Opera just made an agreement with Symbian for mobile Internet devices, for instance. That means, being rather small in size, a web browser can be used for many different things...


The end

Nobody is perfect... neither is Opera. However the approach is quite interesting. Whether you like it or not depends on what you're looking for. When someone is used to something he doesn't always like changes. Nevertheless, you should test Opera. Under Linux the graphical browsers are not that numerous (or more exactly, they come from the same core). Now you can have a really different one, give it a chance.
Furthermore, people at Opera showed us they can quickly improve their product. We then can expect an even better browser in a near future.
So, if like me, you're a bit fed up with buggy factories to browse the web, go to http://www.opera.com and download the Linux 5.0 version of this web browser.
Don't you think we're living in a great time ?


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