Free Opera: Start of something big?

The Norwegian software maker has made its first free browser available for download. Will Linux, Mac OS, and BeOS versions be next?

As previously reported, Opera Software A/S made its first free browser available for download Wednesday.

Now the next issue is whether or not the Oslo, Norway-based software maker will also free its BeOS, Mac OS, and Linux versions of Opera.

Opera officials said the decision whether or not to release free versions for other platforms depends on customer feedback on the company's first ad-supported free release, Opera 5.0 for Windows.

"We're first evaluating the feedback," said Opera chief executive Jon von Tetzchner.

Von Tetzchner did not offer a timetable as to when Opera will make the final decision on issuing new free versions of its browser. He said the company is in the midst of evaluating that issue.

He added that the company would be unlikely to issue a free version of Opera for EPOC wireless platforms, as the screen size on EPOC devices is too small to accommodate an ad banner. (EPOC is an emerging standardised wireless platform developed by Symbian.)

Opera is a fast and light browser that offers customers an alternative to the dominant Microsoft Internet Explorer and America Online Netscape products.

With the release of 5.0, Opera will attempt to turn the browser war into a three-way race.

The non-Java-enabled version of Opera 5.0 for Windows is 2MB in size -- the Java-enabled version is 9.5MB.

The free version of Opera 5.0 for Windows is supported by a single ad banner. Customers who are averse to ads can opt for the $39 (about £27) version of the new platform. Both the free and paid versions are available for download on the Opera Web site.

Opera officials claimed that the addition of the ad banner, which allows users to download ads once weekly and cache them for future viewing, will not negatively impact the speed of the 5.0 browser.

New to 5.0 for Windows (besides the single ad banner) are integrated search and chat features. The search feature allows users to choose a number of search engines, including Google, Yahoo!, and HotBot, from within their browsers. The integrated messaging client allows Opera users to chat with ICQ users seamlessly.

With the release of 5.0, Opera will attempt to turn the browser war into a three-way race, von Tetzchner said. The company plans to step up its marketing campaign, distributing Opera 5.0 for Windows on CDs accompanying computer magazines.

He added that Opera has some download deals in the works with a number of major Internet sites, but declined to provide further details.

Von Tetzchner emphasised that a pure-play browser vendor like Opera was well-situated to strike such deals because, unlike Microsoft and AOL, Opera is not competing with independent portals, ISPs, and content sites.

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