But for raw innovation, you have to dig down to the world's fifth favourite browser. Yesterday, a new version of Opera (2.17%) was made available as a free download for Mac and Windows, featuring a new technology platform called Opera Unite. The concept is simple: rather than passively viewing the web, Unite lets you interact by sharing your stuff with other web users. Suddenly the browser is a two-way portal:
With Opera 10.10 running, you can share files from your hard drive with colleagues; I can share pictures with friends and family without needing to upload them to the web; stream music (or vintage Stuff podcasts) direct from my hard drive; leave messages on my virtual fridge (and do feel free to leave me one) or even host a website direct from your PC. Naturally, you have the option of password protecting your stuff.
Because all this sharing is browser based, you can access files from a mobile too - although the iPhone doesn't seem to like music streaming from Unite, it'll show pictures and open Office file, while the Blackberry Bold seemed very happy to suck down MP3s to its memory card drive.
Of course, all this uploading is going to put a severe strain on the weedy uplink speeds of most broadband connections (a quick speed check shows by so-called 8Mb connection actually downloads at 5Mbps and uploads at just 356kbps). But my tests - conducted unscientifically using a one-bar connection to my neighbour's open wireless network (thanks Matt) - show that it really is possible to share entire photo libary without too much of a lag.
Opera's vision is to cut the 'servers belonging to strangers' out of the equation. In other words, instead giving all you stuff to Google to store in a cloud high up in the sky, you live in your own virtual mist.
In reality cloud computing and, erm, mist computing can co-exist peacefully - Unite just gives much of the same functionality as services like Back to My PC. The downside is that your home computer needs to be switched on (and awake, and running Opera) all the time. But with an open API, Unite could easily throw up some innovative new applications that make those joules worth burning.
Trying too hard?
Unite aside, there's much to like about the new Opera - the UI is a giant leap from the amateurist look-and-feel in version 9, and features great customisable options like visual tabs that show thumbnails of each open page. If you're browsing with a mobile dongle (or, god forbid, via dial-up) you'll appreciate the Turbo Browsing, which uses the same compression technologies that make Opera Mini and Mobile such brilliantly speedy phone browsers. The mouse gestures and voice control are fun to play with, too.
But all this ambition comes at a cost - while Opera does a good job of hiding its complexity, it's in danger of losing site of its main purpose (as well as unite Opera features email and chat clients, plus downloadable widgets). When browsing, page rendering is variable, with fonts often looking odd. Worse, Opera doesn't seem to be able to cope with Haymarket Media's Outlook Web Access email.
Nonetheless, there's enough that's good within Opera 10.10 to make me stick with it for a while. And hell, it's free - so why not give it a try for yourself, and let me know what you think in the comments below.