“For us it feels like the browser wars are back on,” declares Jan Standal, product management VP for Norway’s most famous software company, Opera, recently bought by Chinese investors for $1.2 billion (£800 million).  After trialling the developer release of the company’s forthcoming browser release he might have a point. Due as part of a release this summer, Opera is about to become the first of the big browsers brands to integrate a native VPN client free of charge as well as a new adblocking engine, two features Opera decided to build after noticing the number of sometimes wonky extensions users were loading to do the same job.

This arrives after a period of years when browsers seemed to be becoming more and more alike, at least on the surface. Adding difficult features such as a native VPN is an aggressive move that could make the world's favourite cult browser a lot more popular overnight.

“We have a history of being first many times. It’s part of the DNA here to push ahead. But we realised people are telling us that they want these features,” says Standal.

Integrating VPN and adblocking directly into the browser is simply the best way to make these features work well without having to compromise on performance or privacy, according to the firm. The VPN service will be delivered by Canadian Opera subsidiary SurfEasy but it is no cheap bolt on service, stresses Standal.

“We believe it scales. We are already operating one of the biggest server operations in the world with Opera Mini,” he says, referring to the firm’s popular mobile browser. “It is a cost for us to do this but we still believe it’s worth doing it.”

Opera free VPN up close

It’s early days for the VPN in the developer release so assessing performance is not yet possible but the seamlessness of using it is impressive. The user turns it on in the Privacy & Security tab in Settings, after which it directs all traffic, including that of any installed plug-ins via server locations that can be chosen from a drop-down in the address bar. Currently, that’s Germany, Canada and the US but more countries are promised for users who want to appear to be somewhere local when they’re not. Once activated, the same drop-down also allows the VPN to be quickly toggled on and off.

This is a VPN but it is not, obviously, a full VPN client. It only works when using Opera itself and any other browser or application used at the same time will not be hidden or encrypted. This brings us to how the VPN works because it’s worth paying attention to.  

The term VPN sometimes hides differences between the sort of privacy on offer. All VPNs hide the user’s IP address from the sites visited, or make it appear the user is in a specific country or location. But the service itself knows where the user is and some of them log that as part of their business model. The best recommendation we’d make is that free VPNs are immediately suspect – is collecting data on the users and the sites they visit part of a profiling system?  Paid services will usually state what if any data is collected in the terms service but even here no assumptions should be made.

Pleasingly, Opera’s VPN doesn’t track. “We keep the minimum logs and they are temporary. It’s no-log service,” says Standal. The data collected is the minimum required to keep the user connected and none of this data is monetised. To quote the release privacy policy for version 38.0 used in this article:

“No personal identifiable information is collected. Your installation of Opera browser contains a unique ID that cannot be linked to you as an individual person.” 

Opera free VPN up close - adblocking 

Another in-demand feature, adblocking, has been built in-house to make sure it works without the sorts of glitches that can affect the ranks of third-party add-ons.  As we’ve described before, some of these are controversial because they operate commercial whitelists that allow some ads through in return for money. They are blocking ads but not necessarily on terms end users fully understand.  In some cases, adblockers can also stop useful elements of websites from working correctly.  

The adblocking in the new Opera looks pretty basic at first although not turned on by default. The only configuration possible is to specify websites as exceptions while the software keeps a simple count of ads and trackers blocked. One interesting feature is the ability to time loading performance for a given site with adblocking turned on and off. 

“The reason we do it is because of speed. This is the holy grail for us,” states Standal.

According to Standal, the company does not monetise ad traffic or allow some networks through in the fashion of the Acceptable Ads programme used by AdBlock Plus and several others.  Unexpectedly, Opera appeared able to bypass anti-adblocking systems on some sites. It’s not clear that this is deliberate on Opera’s part and might simply be due to the difficulty of detecting it as a native feature rather than as an extension. 

Conclusion

Having spent a couple of days using Opera, our conclusion is that the reports of the demise of desktop web browsers might have been a bit premature. As Standal himself points out: “There has been so much talk about the desktop being dead but it’s not.”

The desktop browser is still hugely in demand and even on mobile platforms apps have limitations. Browsers are still powerful windows on the Internet that will be around for a long while yet. What Opera seems to have done is decide to compete once again. It will be interesting to see whether the big guns of Chrome, Firefox and IE/Edge take up the challenge. With business models built on making money from enabling ads and clicks, it’s not clear that firms such as Google for one will find it easy to throw up something like a VPN.

Timescale: Opera with adblocking is due in May 2016 with the VPN due to appear in June or July.

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