September 21, 2005

Opera Browser: Now Free & Why You Should Care

The Opera 8.5 web browser just became free, offered without the ads. As Opera's site is fairly scarce on details, BetaNews and CNet provide a few more tidbits as to why Opera is now offered without ads, licensing fees, or registration. (Premium support is still available at $29 per year.)

Interestingly, the timing could be fortuitous, given this CNet article published two days ago: "Symantec: Mozilla browsers more vulnerable than IE". (Yes, that's not a misprint.)

According to CNet's summary of Symantec's Internet Security Threat Report, "25 vendor-confirmed vulnerabilities were disclosed for the Mozilla browsers during the first half of 2005, 'the most of any browser studied,' the report's authors stated. Eighteen of these flaws were classified as high severity. 'During the same period, 13 vendor-confirmed vulnerabilities were disclosed for IE, eight of which were high severity,' the report noted." [...] "There is one caveat: Symantec counts only those security flaws that have been confirmed by the vendor."

With this said, Symantec adds that only IE has experienced "widespread exploitation" so far, but "expects this to change as alternative browsers become increasingly widely deployed." In other words, IE is just more squarely within hackers' sights -- at the moment.

The article goes on to cover the Secunia statistics for the browsers. Secunia is a well-known security monitoring company that tracks security issues of various applications. Just to provide a more apples-to-apples comparison between IE, Mozilla, and Opera, I looked up the latest version of each browser to see how many Secunia "advisories" (i.e., security risks, exploits, etc.) were reported for each. As of today, Opera indeed appears to fare the best among the three, and Mozilla doesn't look so bad with just a few outstanding issues (although "none" would be better):

Total Secunia Advisories (I believe these are cumulative):

IE 6.x:85
Mozilla Firefox 1.x:  23
Opera 8.x:8

Total Unpatched Secunia Advisories (these are the ones to worry about):
IE 6.x:19
Mozilla Firefox 1.x:  4
Opera 8.x:0

Over the past several years, I haven't been a big fan nor user of Opera, namely for these reasons: I don't like ads or anything remotely related to adware, nor did I want to pay for a web browser when good free alternatives existed. Also, some web sites didn't display properly in Opera (although the same could easily be said for Mozilla-based browsers as well).

However, given that Opera is on version 8.5 and was more commercially developed compared to Mozilla's open source efforts, one could make a very good argument that it's more mature and has more built-in features. Mozilla requires many third-party plug-ins to achieve its functionality. One area I've always thought Opera was a leader was its mouse gestures for quick navigation -- a great feature that once you master, you don't want to use a browser without. And, as a market trailer, it's far less likely that hackers would find any meaningful return in their efforts to exploit it. That could change now that it's free, as there's a lot to like.

Is it too late for Opera to compete in the browser wars? Hard to say. Fairly recent surveys show people are much more aware of security issues relating to Internet use (adware, spyware, browsers, spam, phishing, etc.). People like choices. People like free choices even more, especially if it's a good product and the pain to change over from a competitor is fairly low. I do think that by now, most people have "settled in" with their browser of choice, and don't want to migrate their bookmarks/favorites yet again. However, there are many who always want to try the latest and greatest, and I have no doubt they are already downloading Opera, willing to give it a whirl.

After Microsoft has dominated the browser scene for so long (amazing considering its lack of releases to keep pace), it's nice to see the pendulum swinging back the other way.

Topic(s):   Privacy & Security  |  Web Wizardry
Posted by Jeff Beard