The next Opera

With voice commands, shrinking Web pages and improved RSS tools, Opera is confident that the beta of its new browser has enough new features to merit a jump to version 8.0.

With voice commands, shrinking Web pages and improved RSS tools, Opera is confident that the beta of its new browser has enough new features to merit a jump to version 8.0.

Norwegian browser company Opera Software released a beta version of its latest browser last week.

This was intended to be the beta for version 7.6 of the browser, but the company says its new features are so substantial that "it exceeds the next logical version number and warrants a major release." This suggests a major version jump, backed up by the fact that the beta's 'about' page refers to itself as version 8.0.

The beta can be downloaded from Opera's Web site.

Opera chief executive Jon S. von Tetzchner said people who have licensed Opera 7 will receive free upgrades when the new version is officially released.

The new Opera browser includes an updated and more prominent RSS tool, and rendering technology designed to cut out the need for horizontally scrolling across Web pages, regardless of screen size. The same technology also means that online content can be printed on any size of paper without cutting off the edges. The browser will also contain an accessibility feature that allows uses to magnify Web pages and view them without scrolling sideways.

The renderer uses a combination of techniques: it reflows page elements where possible, and resizes them to fit where necessary. Depending on how a Web page has been written, this can result in either a rescaled version of the page, or some elements being pushed to the bottom of the page.

Opera has been working on the problem of rendering Web pages on small screens for some time. It produces versions of its browser for various mobile phones including Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Panasonic and Siemens handsets. It also recently added support for Microsoft smartphones, reversing its self-imposed ban on producing software for Microsoft.

The new version of Opera also features voice technology, allowing users to browse the Web using spoken commands, such as "Opera next link", "Opera back", or "Opera speak".

As Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser continues to suffer from high-profile security flaws, users have been flocking to alternatives in recent months.

Mozilla's Firefox browser "usage share" had climbed to four percent by mid-December, from three percent just before the launch of Version 1.0 in early November, according to San Diego-based WebSideStory, which sells Web site traffic monitoring software and services. Firefox appears to have taken that percentage point directly from IE, which slipped from 93 percent to 92 percent.

Another Web site metrics firm, Amsterdam, Netherlands-based OneStat.com, last month showed IE dipping below the 90 percent mark.

By WebSideStory's count, non-Firefox Netscape browsers accounted for three percent of the market, unchanged from the prior month, and other browsers -- which include Opera and Apple's Safari browser -- accounted for one percent of usage.

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