First look: Opera Unite alpha lets you share files -- but is it safe?

Opera will be offering people their own Web server in its latest browser. The real question is: Should it?

Opera Software's announcement that it's going to bundle Unite, an easy-to-use Web server with content-sharing applets, with the Opera 10 Web browser sounds great -- at first. Upon closer inspection, though, there could be some real security headaches.

For now, Unite, which is available for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows, is alpha software. That means it breaks. A lot. (I experienced a number of disconnects and freezes.) Still, I was able to get it to work on systems running Windows XP and SimplyMepis 8.0, a Debian Linux distribution.

What is it? With Opera Unite, you can, in theory, share files on your computer -- photos, MP3 audio files, etc. -- with your friends or the entire world. You can also use applets that let you, for example, host real-time chats or discussion forums. Any user, no matter what browser they use, can access whatever you decide to share.

How does it work? Unite is both a Web browser and a Web server. With the included JavaScript applets, you can easily set up what you want to share and what services you want to provide, such as an online discussion forum. Users don't directly connect to your PC -- instead, they hook up with Opera's Web proxy servers which, in turn, pull the data from whatever folders you elect to share. For example, you can share all your music or just one directory from your music library.

To make this happen, your PC and its Internet connection have to have port 8840 open. To let others get to your computer, you tell them your Unite URL. The URL is made up of the name of your PC, your Opera user name, the name of the Unite service that you are using (for example, file sharing) and your password. For example:

http://yourPC.Operausername.operaunite.com/ servicename/access_content/password

What's cool about it? Unite lets you share pretty much anything you want with friends and family without having to upload anything to a third-party service. Want to show the folks the photos of the new baby? Just share the new baby photo folder with Unite, send them the URL and they'll soon be saying she looks just like her aunt Alice.

Opera Unite

Opera Unite

Click to view larger image

What needs to be fixed? The security. The password is part of the URL, and Unite doesn't use an encryption protocol, so anyone snooping for a Unite connection can pick up the password.

This isn't a new problem -- or, for that matter, a new concept. Back in the mid-'90s, when the Internet was becoming popular, many Internet software kits included basic tools to set up your own site. That didn't last long, though, because ordinary users are about as well equipped to secure a Web site as ordinary drivers are to race in NASCAR. With any luck, future versions of Unite will offer better options.

Final verdict: While Unite is not really a revolutionary new idea, it could be useful -- if properly done. This is an alpha version, so one hopes that Opera will radically improve Unite's security -- otherwise, this could be a security fiasco. Meanwhile, if you want to share files but you don't want to use a third-party service, go to a Web hosting company and set up your own Web site. It's almost as easy to do as with Unite and it's a heck of a lot safer.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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