3rd Place: Opera Sings Out of Tune

Since trying out Opera 9, I’ve been slowly warming towards the browser. It’s really fast, it does most of what I need, and it does it all pretty well. There are some quirks and ifs here and there, but generally it’s rock-solid competition for Firefox.

It’s really fast, it does most of what I need, and it does it all pretty well.

This got me thinking. Why didn’t I even consider running Opera before? Why is the Opera browser share as low as 1.5%, when the browser is, in fact, more decent than that?

In this entry I’d like to touch upon some design issues, usability issues, interface design decisions and naming issues I personally think could use touch-ups or changes.

1. The Logo

opera_logo_comparisons

Which one would you rather have sitting in your tray / in your dock / on your desktop / in your start menu? Which icon looks the most like the icon of a web-browser?

In both these questions I’d prioritize like this: 1. Firefox, 2. IE, 3. Opera. Firefox has a globe, which communicates “world-wide”. IE’s “e” communicates “electronic”, and when it animates (while loading), the e transforms into a globe. The Opera “O” is simply the first letter of the name. I would suggest that Opera gets a new and more apt logo and apparently I’m not the only one to suggest this.

2. The Name

Mozilla Firefox Windows Internet Explorer Opera

Which name do you prefer? Which name is most likely to be a web-browser for the unknowing reader?

Neither of these names are really good, but at least IE’s full name communicates “internet exploration”. As such, both Firefox and Opera could learn from this. My suggestion: tweak the name ever so slightly. How about: *Opera Internet Browser”, or plainly “Opera Browser”. Solely communicating singing to orchestral music won’t help.

3. The Default Configuration

firefox2_thumb

ie7_thumb

opera9_thumb

Note: I have removed a few toolbars and buttons from Operas default configuration.

Which of the above three default configurations appeal the most to you? Which of them looks most like a browser?

In my case, I really like the Opera configuration, but simply due to the fact that it’s skinned with a whitish/bluish look by default, I’m picking Firefox in both questions. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the ability to skin an application is not bad per se, but enabling a non-OS-looking skin by default is a huge usability mistake. Not only will it stand out like a sore thumb, but unless it’s built by Microsoft or Apple, it’ll probably be the only application on your system standing out like this. Additionally, since it looks different than the other two browsers, chances are casual users will think it behaves differently too. My sincere recommendation for Opera (seriously, please heed this) is to have the Windows Native skin be enabled by default. I believe this issue will become especially visible when Windows Vista comes out.

4. Streamline Menus And Menu Items

As a quick example of the difference between the three browsers, here is a list of the three “Tools” menus:

Firefox Internet Explorer Opera
Web Search Delete Browsing History… Mail and chat accounts…
Read Mail Pop-up Blocker » Delete private data…
New Message… Phishing Filter » Notes
Downloads Manage Add-ons » Transfers
Add-ons Work Offline History
JavaScript Console Windows Update Links
Page Info Full Screen Advanced »
Clear Private Data Menu Bar Quick preferences »
Options… Toolbars » Appearance…
Internet Options Preferences…

Note: Shortcut text removed.

Legend: Tools, Privacy, Options, » indicates sub-menu.

Which menu is generally the most easy to decipher? If you wanted to change the default startup page, which menu, do you think, would get you to the right place with the least amount of thinking?

My opinion? This is where Firefox shines. IE is number 2, and Opera is a distant 3rd.

Specifically, why are there both “Quick preferences” and “Preferences”? Is the preferences page so badly designed (yes it is) that it’s not quick enough as it is? Why are downloads called “Transfers” when “Downloads” would be my logical choice (and hence what I would scan for in the list)? By simply combining some items and renaming others, the contents of the “Advanced” foldout-menu could easily be part of the main list. Finally, sub-menus should be avoided whenever possible. It’s always a cop-out to simplify menus by creating more menus. Sub-menus are especially bad because they require precision pointing.

Conclusions

It shouldn’t require an interface designer to point out the obvious shortcomings of Opera. The work is essentially spelled out for them. What it takes, however, is commitment.

It shouldn’t require an interface designer to point out the obvious shortcomings of Opera.

Since Opera “lost” Browser War 2 to Firefox and joined Browser War 3 with a free browser, Opera lost a stream of revenue. Opera now mainly makes it’s profit on ports for devices, including hand-helds, cellphones and the Nintendos Wii & DS. In other words, there’s no clear dangling profit-carrot in front of Opera for Windows. There is only one carrot: the brand-recognition-carrot. Should Opera become a player in the Windows browser market, it would automatically help the brand elsewhere.

Considering the fact that it’s a solid product, giving it a cheap 10-years-younger makeover to possibly give it some traction seems like an easy-peasy job. Hello Opera? Earth calling. We wish you were here.

9 thoughts on “3rd Place: Opera Sings Out of Tune”

  1. Daniel P says:

    I used Opera from version 7 (office license) up until v9.. Which is when I stopped.. Mostly because they seemed to have run out of worthwhile functions to add, and instead of just making the browser more usable (that preferences menu is painful).. they added useless functions, like the tab preview image.. which doesn’t do much at all, how much longer does it take to click the tab? And the widgets. I don’t think people are that insane about widgets that they want them builtin to their web browser. Not to mention that OS X already has them, and Vista will as well.

    Not going to reiterate what you’ve said, since I largely agree..

    Here’s a side-by-side of the browsers in Vista, in case you’d like to see how they fare.. (MS Paint quality… ick)

    They’re the latest versions, aside from Firefox.. I don’t care much for the new Firefox.

    I personally prefer the new IE feel, since it’s pretty compact.. Most of the space is dedicated to the page you’re visiting.. Which is nice. Of course, it’s not entirely user friendly to the average XP user. There’s no alt-menu visible.. You have to click alt to get it, and the little icon menu to the right (I’ve removed a few of the icons) aren’t immediately obvious as to what they mean. It’s not difficult to find out, but still. The menu thing, I suppose will be acceptable considering how every Vista application has done this to the menu’s. It just takes some getting used to.

    I’ll place Firefox at second, since it generally fits in (since there’s no custom skin or anything) and looks like most other XP applications do if you try them in Vista. It shows the alt menu per default and everything. That causes some inconsistency though, since older applications always show the alt menu, while Vista applications don’t. Whether it’s a big issue I can’t say, it hasn’t bothered me.

    Opera still, works, without seeming too strange. It does stick out though, all the scrollbars and menu and everything certaintly don’t match the rest of the system. Still it isn’t unusable by any means, it’s very possible that alot of people won’t even notice. Plus the standard Aero ‘Windows Native’ skin on Opera is a little akward looking, not at all like on Firefox where it fits in without a problem.

  2. paul haine says:

    “Why is the Opera browser share as low as 1.5%, when the browser is, in fact, more decent than that?”

    There’s something you’re overlooking – for many years now, Opera identifies itself as Internet Explorer by default. This was to get around websites and servers that delivered a crusty old Netscape-4 compatible page to anything that wasn’t IE, even though Opera was more than capable of coping with the more advanced pages. So the browser share is probably higher than 1.5%, though it’s impossible to tell for sure.

  3. Joen says:

    Which is when I stopped.

    Sounds like, if they did some of the changes I highlight here, you might be a switch-back’er? What browser are you currently using? Firefox 1.5?

    They?re the latest versions, aside from Firefox.. I don?t care much for the new Firefox.

    I noticed you were using the pleasant old skin from Firefox. I use that too, with Firefox 2 (Winestripe, I believe it’s called). It helps out a lot. Even so, I still think the Firefox 2 tabs works reasonably well. Thanks for the comparison.

    I personally prefer the new IE feel, since it?s pretty compact.. Most of the space is dedicated to the page you?re visiting.. Which is nice. Of course, it?s not entirely user friendly to the average XP user.

    I agree, it’s neat and compact. But as you say, it might be a bit overkill for the casual user.

    There?s no alt-menu visible.

    As in no “file-menu” ? I just want to be sure I know what you’re talking about. As far as I know, IE7 is a great example of what Microsoft is trying to do with Vista: tackle the traditional file-menu / alt-menu, which — when you think about it — contains items that aren’t used all that often. Their alternative(s) include the “Command bar” as they call it, which is slightly different from the old file menu in that it a) can have icons, b) can be context sensitive, c) can have rollout menus (like traditional menus, but with an arrow or an icon). I found some Windows UI guidelines article no this, it was very interesting, and I believe the command bar can be used for good. In the case of IE7, it’s not so good since the icons don’t themselves explain very well what’s going on, and it’s in the same pane as the tabs.

    Plus the standard Aero ?Windows Native? skin on Opera is a little akward looking, not at all like on Firefox where it fits in without a problem.

    Any chance of another screenshot? 😉

    paul,

    There?s something you?re overlooking – for many years now, Opera identifies itself as Internet Explorer by default.

    Good point, the marketshare could be much larger. Even so, Opera is still third compared to IE and FF, and for a reason.

  4. You once again amaze me with how much we think alike. I’ve tried opera now and again too, and want to like it, but the interface simply doesn’t ‘fit’.

    1. Logo: Bang on. Heck, if they want to keep the O, the least they could do would be to kill the shadow.

    2. Name: Yup. In fact, a lot of people don’t know the word “browser” either. I’d suggest just sticking “internet” onto it. Everybody talks about internet this, internet that – even more than “web”!

    3. Out-of-the-Box: Although the compactness of IE7 does appeal to me, Firefox has one big thing going for its layout: It’s the classical browser layout, from Netscape 2 onwards. I still can’t believe they’ve added the shinyness to the tabs though – ugh.

    4. Tools-menu: They all suck. It might just be me, but why does Firefox need a “read mail” and “send message” built in? Also, “Page info”. Does anyone really use that?

    Conclusion: Opera wouldn’t actually have that much to gain from brand recognition with the general public. It’s the handset and console makers who make the choice of browser for their products. Most mobile/console consumers I’ve talked to just think “internet!” and that’s it. The notion that their phone has a specific type of browser is of no concern to them at all.

  5. I can’t believe no one has touched upon the fact that opera was the only browser of these that cost money for the first many, many years of it’s life.

    When it became free, it was years behind. It has next to no mindshare.

    Even firefox that is free and guaranteed to be free in the future has a hard time breaking into the market of a free browser that is already on peoples computers.

    I think it goes something more like this:

    1) Most people don’t look for a better alternative if they don’t clearly see the limitations of what they are using. Curiously, they usually don’t see these limitations without trying something better first. Catch 22.

    2) The people who do tend to be either tweakers or geeks. Tweakers will like all the firefox extensions and geeks like the fact that it’s open source.

    3) Opera browser stat skewing because of opera identifying itself as IE.

    4) … the rest.

  6. Daniel P says:

    Sounds like, if they did some of the changes I highlight here, you might be a switch-back?er?

    Yeah. I was always a fan of Opera, even if it can occasionally render pages a bit strangely.. Which is because it doesn’t have a big enough market share to be taken seriously. Personally I’m thankful it doesn’t, since it’d just be more work for me!

    What browser are you currently using? Firefox 1.5?

    Yep. It has everything I need out of a browser.. And I couldn’t stand the 2.0 skin for a few reasons.

    I noticed you were using the pleasant old skin from Firefox. I use that too, with Firefox 2 (Winestripe, I believe it?s called). It helps out a lot.

    I’ve seen a few of those around, but I’m not really certain of how it would benefit me to switch if I try to ‘fix it up’ so it acts the same as the older version. So, I haven’t.

    As in no ?file-menu??

    Precisely.

    the ?Command bar? as they call it, which is slightly different from the old file menu in that it […]

    Yeah, the Command bar is a neat idea.. The context sensitive bit though, i’m a little uncertain about. In my drivers folder, I get a WMP ‘play all’ icon, which.. starts wmp with an empty playlist. In my music folder, I get nothing. Possibly, it’ll work better in the final release version.

    They also seem a little inconsistent in their menu implementation.

    You have the new menu style (which i think is pretty nice)

    The Internet Explorer menu style

    A combination of the classic menu style and the new menu style

    The old fashioned menu style (without pressing alt)

    The bizarre Office menu

    I had to throw the new Office in there.. That thing’s just weird.

    I have to agree that they’ve put up some worthwhile guidelines though, which is good, if people take the time to read them (which they won’t.. nice effort though)

    Any chance of another screenshot? 😉

    Sigh..

    Here you are, a shot of the Opera menu area with their Windows Native skin next to FF 1.5.

    It appears to have two seperate menu’s, because of the gradient by the navigation area.

    For me, it doesn’t work.

  7. Nick says:

    I love Firefox, and I’m always using it. Annoyingly, whenever I’m using it, I get this little notch of my brain determined to use Opera… The choice is so damn difficult.

  8. Xial says:

    One thing I feel you missed was that Opera uses some pretty funky keybindings.

    For example, when I want a new tab in Firefox, I press Ctrl+T.

    In my head, I think, T is for Tab, Tab is for me.

    I fire up Opera, and want a new tab, so I hit Ctrl+T out of reflexive conditioning.

    It wants to ask me how to bookmark the page.

    There’s no T in Bookmark, is there?

    Okay, so Firefox and IE both use Ctrl+D to Add to [Bookmarks|Favorites], and there isn’t a D in Bookmarks or Favorites. But, it’s easily explainable in my head: Ctrl+A (Select ALL) existed before these browsers did. There is a D in Add, so let’s use that, without changing a system default binding.

    Sure, I could go dig through their preferences interface (which gives me a serious case of tl;dr) to change it, but I get exhausted walking through their menus.

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