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The press swelled with rumors that Facebook might want to acquire Opera, a mobile-friendly web browsing company, a few weeks ago. Though nothing much has come of that rumor to date, Opera has soldiered along on its own path. This week, it released Opera 12, a new desktop version for Windows, OS X, and Linux.

Odds are you use either Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, or Firefox. Opera’s the fifth “major” browser, though with a reported market share of less than two percent, that’s perhaps stretching the definition of “major.” What Opera is is an underdog, and everyone likes an underdog. But how does it measure up?

Opera 12 introduces a few new cool features. There’s a new browser skinning system, with cute themes that put me in mind of the Bing search page. There’s expanded language support, signaling Opera 12’s interest and experience in other parts of the world (one argument for Opera is that it may be optimized for the developing world, in some ways, at least in its mobile version). Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hebrew, and even Kazakh now get support. Cleverly, Opera gives plug-ins their own support, meaning that if a plug-in crashes, your whole browser won’t crash.

Not everyone is excited about Opera 12. For this CNET reviewer, for instance, it was a disappointment. “It’s disappointing to say so,” he writes, “but it’s hard to find changes in this new Opera release that the four other top-shelf browsers aren’t doing as well or better.” CNET’s particularly irked that the promised hardware acceleration feature is still stuck in an “experimental phase.” Others, though, are more sanguine about its promise, taking a glass-half-full approach (at least it can be experimented with!). Consult this post on Opera’s site to determine whether opting in to hardware acceleration makes sense for you.

My favorite part of Opera’s new browser, or at least the way it’s being pitched, is its promise to make security “sexy.” As Opera says on its site, “Nothing is sexier (to us, anyway) than knowing your personal information is safe and secure.” This innovation is a very subtle one–an overhaul of a security badge system, so you can quickly judge just how cozy a given website is trying to get with you. At a glance, you can tell whether a site is using your location information, say, or whether it wants to turn on your webcam. But at the same time, it’s kind of profound.

Opera’s Tom Ford explains the new feature to me in an email:

We made the security badge originally to give people a very clear indicator about the security around the sites they were visiting. They can click the badge to dive deeper.
 
Now, we’ve taken that a step further. The security badge has been rearranged and redesigned. It gives you more information around the site’s trust level. Most importantly, the security badge also shows when a site wants to use the webcam. You can see this in action on the shinydemos.com site we made.
 
I guess by saying it’s sexy, it’s also our way of indicating how important it is to us and how we feel about constantly improving it.

As someone who is consistently frustrated with the ways security and privacy policies are communicated (or not) on websites, I applaud Opera’s efforts here. Ironically, one site notorious for not being extremely forthright about privacy options is Facebook. I have tried several times to turn off my social plug-ins on Facebook, and have yet to succeed. Getting privacy just right on that site can sometimes feel like a full-time job akin to weeding. If Facebook ever were to acquire Opera, let’s hope Opera’s emphasis on clearly communicated security features would trickle up.

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