Opera has been my browser of choice for a long time. As far as I can recall, I started looking at it as my preferred browser since version 5, the ad-supported version, released around the turn of the millennium. It wasn't until two or three versions later, however, that I could stick to it as my primary browser, given the number of websites that had troubles with it (some due to bugs in Opera, but most often due to stupidity from the web designer and their general lack of respect for the universality of the web).

While a strong open-source supporter, I've always considered myself a pragmatist, and the choice for Opera as my preferred browser (together with other software, such as WordPerfect, which is off topic here) has always been a clear example of this attitude of mine: when a close-source proprietary software is hands-down superior to any open-source alternative, I'd rather use the closed-source software, especially when it's free (gratis).

One of the reasons why I've always preferred Opera is that it has been the pioneer, when not the inventor, of many of the web technologies and user interface choices that are nowadays widely available in more popular browsers. I've often found myself replying with “oh, they finally caught up with features Opera has had for years?” when people started boasting of “innovative” features like tabs being introduced in browsers such as Firefox.

Opera was the first browser to have decent CSS support, and except for brief moments in history, has always been leading in its compliance to the specification (to the point of resulting in ‘broken’ rendering when CSS was written to fit the errors in other, more common, implementations).

Opera has sported a Multiple Document Interface (a stripped-down version of which is the tabbing interface exposed by all major browsers today) since its earlier release.

Opera has had proper support for SVG as an image format before any other browser (still today, some browsers have problems with it being used e.g. as a background image defined by CSS).

Opera has a much more sophisticated User JavaScript functionality than that offered by the GreaseMonkey extension in Firefox. (This is partly due to the fact that the same technology is used to work around issues in websites that autodetect Opera and send it broken HTML, CSS or JavaScript.)

In fact, Opera hasn't had any support for extensions until very recently, since it managed to implement most of the features provided by extensions to other browsers, in a single package, while still remaining relatively lightweight in terms of resource consumption and program size.

When the Mozilla suite was being re-engineered into separate components (Firefox the browser, Thunderbird for mail and news, etc) in the hopes of reducing bloat, Opera managed to squeeze all those components in a single application that was smaller and less memory-hungry than anything that ever came out of Mozilla.

When Firefox stopped supporting Windows 98, Opera could still run (even if just barely) on a fairly updated Windows 95 on quite old hardware. When Firefox started having troubles being built on 32-bit systems, Opera still shipped a ridiculously large amount of features in an incredibly small package. Feed discovery? Built-in. Navigation bar? Built-in. Content blocking? Built-in. Developer tools? Built-in.

Opera pioneered Widgets. Opera pioneered having a webserver built in the browser (Opera Unite). I could probably go on forever enumerating how Opera has constantly been one when not several steps ahead of the competition.

Additionally, Opera has long been available on mobile, in two versions (a full-fledged browser as well as a Mini version); and even the desktop version of the browser has the opportunity to render things as if it were on mobile (an excellent feature for web developers). Opera is essentially the only alternative to the built-in browser of the N900 (or more in general for Maemo). Opera is also the browser of the Wii, and the browser present in most web-enabled television sets.

Despite its technical superiority and its wide availability, Opera has never seen a significant growth in user share on the desktop, consistently floating in the whereabouts of a 2% usage worldwide (that still amounts to a few hundred million, possible more than half a billion, users).

I'm not going to debate on the reasons for this lack of progress (aside from mentioning people's stupidity and/or laziness, and marketing), but I will highlight the fact that Opera users can be considered “atypical”. Although I'm sure some of them stick to the browser for the hipster feeling of using something which is oh so non-mainstream, I'd say most Opera aficionados are such specifically because of its technical quality and its general aim towards an open, standard web.

Although the overall percentage of Opera users has not grown nor waned significantly in the last ten years or so, it's not hard to think of scenarios that would cause an en masse migration away from the browser (sadly, there aren't as many scenarios where people would migrate to it).

One of these scenarios is Opera being bought by Facebook, a scenario that may become a reality if the rumor that has been circulating these past days has any merit. I've even been contacted about this rumor by at least two distinct friends of mine, people that know me well as an Opera aficionado and Facebook despiser.

One of them just pointed me to a website discussing the rumor in an email aptly titled “Cognitive dissonance in 3, 2, 1, …”. To me, the most interesting part of that article were the comments, with many current Opera fans remarking how that would be the moment they'd drop Opera to switch to some other browser.

These are exactly my own feelings, in direct contrast with what the other friend of mine claimed with a Nelson-like attitude (“ah-ha, you'll become a ‘facebooker’ even against your will”), pointing to another website discussing the same rumor. But that would be like saying that I'd become a Windows user because of the Nokia/Microsoft deal, while I've just ditched Nokia for good.

In fact, an Opera/Facebook deal would have a lot of similarities with the Nokia/Microsoft deal that has sealed Nokia's failure in the smartphone market. For Facebook (resp. Microsoft), getting their hands on an excellent browser (resp. hardware manufacturer) like Opera (resp. Nokia) is an excellent strategic move to enter a market that they would have (resp. have had) immense troubles penetrating otherwise; for Opera (resp. Nokia), on the other hand, and especially for its users, the acquisition would be (resp. has been) disastruous.

In many ways, Facebook on the web represents the opposite of what Opera has struggled for; where Opera has actively pursued an open, interoperable web based on common standards and free from vendor lock-in, Facebook has tried to become the de facto infrastructure of a ‘new web’, with websites depending on Facebook for logins and user comments, and where the idea itself of websites starts losing importance, when just the “Facebook page” is sufficient. This is essentially the server-side (‘cloud’) counterpart of what Microsoft was done years ago with the introduction of the ActiveX controls and other proprietary ‘web’ features in Internet Explorer.

I'm not going to spend too many words on how and why this is a bad thing (from the single point of failure to the total loss of control over content, its management and freedom of expression), but even just the rumor of Opera, a browser that was actually going in the opposite direction by providing everybody with a personal web server to easily share content with other people from their own machine, is enough to send chills down my spine.

It's interesting to note that Opera has halted development of their Unite platform (as well as their Widgets platform) citing resource constraints (between Unite, Widgets, and the recently introduced Extensions, they did look a little as if they were biting off more than they could chew). And unless there will be Opera extensions developed to match the features formerly provided by the Unite and Widgets platform, their end of life marks a very sad loss for the “more power to the user” strategy that has made Opera such an excellent choice for the cognoscenti.

There are forms of partnership possible between Facebook and Opera that could be designed to benefit both partners without turning up as a complete loss for one at the benefit of the other, in pretty much the same way as Opera has built partnership with many hardware vendors to ship their browser. And since these markets are exactly what Facebook is interested in, I doubt that they would settle for anything less than buying out Opera altogether.

On a purely personal level, I'm going to wait and see this rumor through. If it does turn out to be true, I'll have no second thoughts in considering the Opera I like at its end of life, and I'll start looking into alternatives more in tune with my personal choices of server- and client-side platforms. (And what a step would that be, from actually considering applying for a job at Opera!)

Judging from the comments to the rumor on the Opera fora, I'm not the only Opera user thinking along those lines. One would wonder if Opera would still be worth that much to Facebook after its market share suddenly drops to something around zero, but if the only thing Facebook is interested in is the market penetration obtained by Opera pre-installations on mobile devices and ‘smart’ TV sets, how much would they even care for the desktop users that actually switched to that browser by choice?

{ This article will be updated when the rumor will be definitely confirmed or refuted. }