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Host Your Own Facebook With Opera Unite

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Opera Software has unveiled a new service, dubbed Opera Unite, for its flagship browser. Opera Unite is essentially a web server built in to the browser — instead of just passively browsing the web, Opera Unite lets you share photos, chat, and host your web site directly on your own computer.

Opera Unite is currently in beta and available within the latest pre-release versions of the upcoming Opera 10 browser.

The new service allows users to build and host not only web sites, but also custom web apps powered by JavaScript, which could be used to power private social networks like mini-Facebooks or mini-Flickrs, collaborative tools like Google Wave or even file-sharing darknets.

Running your own server isn’t a new idea — many of us are doing it already thanks to the the built-in web servers in almost every OS on the market — but by putting the server in the browser, Opera is making it possible for anyone to host their own server with the click of a button. Once Unite is up and running, anyone can connect to it from any browser. While your copy of Opera runs the server, your visitors can use any browser they’d like.

So what’s the big deal? Why would you want your own web server on your local machine? For answers, you have to go back to Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of the web — it was supposed to be literally a web, rather than hub-and-spoke network of servers and web browsers that we have today. The advantage of the true “web” approach — that is, I connect directly to your PC rather than both of us connecting to, say, Facebook — is that there’s there’s no third party involved, which means we all control our own data and aren’t dependent on a server.

But there are also some problems with that approach which historically made the client server model more practical — namely bandwidth and uptime.

While bandwidth has improved over the years, most ISPs still offer far better download speeds than upload, and if you’re serving your data off a local server (whether simply a local Apache instance or something like Opera Unite) don’t expect it to perform like server sitting at the end of fiber optic cable.

Then there’s the uptime problem… put your laptop to sleep and your locally-hosted website disappears from the web.

The uptime problem is one place where Opera Unite doesn’t offer any advantage over traditional home server setups. In order to run any sort of server from your desk, your PC needs to be on all the time — close your laptop and, poof, your data is gone. This is the fundamental problem with the original “web of PCs” concept that has never been solved. Even supposing it could be bolstered with some sort of remote cache, that’s not really all that much better than just hosting remotely.

However, all the other complicated stuff associated with web hosting, like opening firewall ports or setting up DNS redirects are handled for you.

The part of Opera Unite that handles the DNS remapping works around both firewall problems and ISP blocks. Many residential ISPs block web server traffic through port 80, which Opera side-steps by making the request from the DNS remapper to your Unite install on something other than port 80.

And what about security? The idea of people uploading and downloading whatever files they want to and from your computer obviously raises concerns. The application is sandboxed, and from what we can tell, no outside access to the host filesystem is allowed. Local files are uploaded to the Unite server and then “downloaded” off to incoming browsers. This is a potential legal can of worms for Opera, which may eventually be forced to start reporting on what’s being uploaded and by whom. Obviously, the security of Unite is incomplete at the moment.

If the web hosting capabilities of Unite fail to raise your eyebrow, take a look at its application framework. It’s here, in the ability to build and host custom web apps on your local machine, that Unite starts to look more enticing.

Thanks to a set of web standards-based and open-source APIs, developers can build Unite applications almost entirely out of JavaScript. JavaScript is still probably too complicated for the average web user, but if Firefox add-ons are any indicator, there are enough developers out there to build just about everything you could ever want.

Opera has several demo apps available for this beta version of Unite, including a chat application, some file sharing tools, a photo publishing app and a media player. But Opera product analyst Lawrence Eng believes that Unite will eventually inspire far more powerful applications.

“Think of multiplayer games, from simple two-player challenges like Chess up to sprawling RPGs,” writes Eng. He goes on to suggest collaborative editing suites (think Google Docs without Google) and local wikis will be among the possibilities — though he seems to have conspicuously left out the obvious one, file sharing.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Eng’s ideas is that Unite could use Ajax and other scripting tools such that “updates are seen on everyone’s computers in real time; multiple people could make changes at once, without having to lock people out. That sounds a lot like Google Wave, which offers similar tools, but relies on the current model of hosting everything on a centralized Google server.

So far, Unite seems a bit heavy on the hype, light on the delivery. While it has some hurdles to overcome, we like where Opera seems to be aiming with Unite and look forward to seeing how it develops. As so often happens with Opera innovations, the ideas behind Unite may well percolate up into other browsers as well.

Seems like this could become a new file sharing application. :look:


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