Opera Unite turns your laptop into a p2p server

The Opera browser, since June 2009, comes with an important extension: Opera Unite can turn any computer running the browser into a server that will share designated data with peers on the net, directly, without the need to upload. After the alpha version of June, last November saw the release of the beta Version 10.10 of Opera which includes Unite as a standard feature. It runs on Unix/Linux, Windows and Mac operating systems.

Any user with a broadband connection can share documents, photos, music and whatever else they have on their computer with family, friends and – why not – the world. There are dozens of applications. They allow direct file and photo sharing, streaming of media, publishing your webcam or turning your computer into a web server. You can chat and play games as well. New applications are added regularly by developers. Opera provides a domain name server to allow personal computers to be found on the net, although users can also get their own domain name and direct traffic to it without going through the Opera DNS server.

Only the publishing computer needs to run Opera Unite. Friends who want to access what you share can use any browser. You can test what you are sharing by logging onto your personal space from another browser on your computer.

But what is it that makes Opera Unite an important development for p2p?

More than anything else, it is the fact that Opera Unite is a platform on which any kind of p2p application imaginable can run. To make optimal use of this platform, we would need to figure out what are the kind of services we want and programmers would have to make the applications.

For now, the available applications are little more than demo objects. There could be others, allowing for instance to build our own social networks (something like an open source, private facebook) or to pay and exchange using a currency of our own design. But it’s all still up in the air – Opera only provides a container that needs our creative ideas to come to life.

When the alpha version of Opera Unite was first made available in June 2009, two articles appeared to introduce the new feature and outline a vision for it. Here are some excerpts.

In An introduction to Opera Unite, Chris Mills says:

In a nutshell, Opera Unite is a collaborative technology that uses a compact server inside the Opera desktop browser to share data and services. You can write applications — in the form of Opera Unite Services — that use this server to serve content to other Web users.

Lawrence Eng, a product analyst for Opera, goes a step further. His introduction to the new Opera feature is titled Taking the Web into our own hands, one computer at a time.

Opera Unite is a unique technology that turns any computer or device running Opera into a Web server. In other words, your computer (running Opera Unite) is truly part of the fabric of the Web, rather than just interacting with it, and it’s something anyone can use. With Opera Unite, everyday non-technical users can serve and share content and services directly from their own computers in the form of intuitive applications. That sounds kind of cool from a technology point of view, but what can you do with it, and why is it important?

With Opera Unite, we are giving developers a chance to develop applications (known as Opera Unite services) that directly link people’s personal computers together, so that you can connect with one or more of your friends at the same time. It all happens through the browser, so no additional software has to be downloaded, and it will work wherever Opera works (Windows, Mac, Linux, and later mobile phones and other devices). Opera provides the platform and you provide the applications—what you create is limited only by your imagination.

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The initial applications offered by Opera Unite are just simple demos (such as a “messenger” application and a media player) that replicate existing services and online functionality, showing them working in the context of Opera Unite. That’s just the tiniest tip of the iceberg—the potential for what can be done is much larger. The key to Opera Unite is that it enables a whole new class of social software on the Web, applications that benefit from two or more people being online at the same time. And, with Opera Unite, these people can all connect directly without needing middlemen who control third-party servers.

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Currently, most of us contribute content to the Web (for example by putting our personal information on social networking sites, uploading photos to Flickr, or maybe publishing blog posts), but we don’t contribute to its fabric — the underlying infrastructure that defines the online landscape that we inhabit.

Our computers are only dumb terminals connected to other computers (meaning servers) owned by other people — such as large corporations — who we depend upon to host our words, thoughts, and images. We depend on them to do it well and with our best interests at heart. We place our trust in these third parties, and we hope for the best, but as long as our own computers are not first class citizens on the Web, we are merely tenants, and hosting companies are the landlords of the Internet.

Social networking is important, but who owns it — the online real estate and all the content we share on it? How much control over our words, photos, and identities are we giving up by using someone else’s site for our personal information? How dependent have we become?

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We are connected to a Web that has democratized much and is an amazing source of information. However, “the wisdom of the crowd,” along with the notion that our data ought to live on other people’s computers that we don’t control, has contributed to making the Internet more impersonal, anonymous, fragmented, and more about “the aggregate” than the individual. In fact, quite the opposite of the original promise. For too long, we’ve been going online to connect to each other, but sacrificing intimacy as a result.

With Opera Unite, I think we can start moving in a different direction.

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The first few services we’ve released for Opera Unite are fairly simple and offer functionality that you’ve likely seen elsewhere, perhaps on desktop applications or 3rd party web sites. These first few demos are meant to illustrate how Opera Unite services are put together and the basics behind the new technology. Building on that foundation, what power will developers unlock when they create and deploy Unite Services in the future?

It looks like we have a tool here, something that could be turned into useful p2p applications. Any ideas of how to best make use of it?

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