Opera Unite is still in Beta but the architecture issues here are still fair game.
I've been playing with Opera Unite over the past couple of weeks, using it to share files and I must admit I'm disappointed. What is the problem Opera is trying to solve here? Let's use Opera's own words, "Opera Unite is a form of collaboration technology that allows you to share data such as files or photos with other users, directly from your computer." (What Is Unite)
File sharing. Excellent! I love file-sharing and often long for an easy fast method of sharing files... We'll get to an overall evaluation after a case-study.
Here is my need: I have 40 pictures I need to share. I need my friends to be able to view those pictures, inform me of their favorites (and why) and keep track of that information. I'm trying to come up with the overall favorite picture and two different genre "subfavorites" based on their collective opinions (with some people's opinion receiving more weight than others)
What do I have? I have the 40 pictures on my desktop. They are high resolution images of ~4MB each. I have a relatively slow DSL connection (1.5 down/740 kbps up) but I'm not running any other services on my connection so that isn't too bad for my friends.
I have a few options.
- I could email the pics, I've tried this and while it is very convenient for my friends, it's nearly impossible when dealing with this many pictures of this size (I could scale them down, but again... more work).
- I could upload to a web server. Currently, I have access to only a few and they aren't my "personal web space" -- so I'm not keen on putting my personal stuff up there. Hunting down a web host doesn't hold much appeal either (nor the cost of it).
- I could use a service like Dropbox, it allows me to upload to their server (up to 2GB) free and I just have to "drop" my folders into my Public Folder (it is integrated with my OS). Then my friends could goto that site and download and view at their leisure and not dependent on my setup. Not too bad but...
- Opera Unite. Being an Opera fan, I decided to give Opera Unite a go.
Case 1: Setup & Go
So, I activate Opera Unite, track down my folder and set it to share. It takes me a while to find the password box (my window was shrunk and I didn't think to scroll down, I thought the password option would be in Opera Unite settings, not on the page itself). Which gets to my first issue. Settings are not centralized. There are the right-click Opera Unite options (this is where you set the folder you want to use) and then there are the "page view" options (this is where you set the password). I had to mentally bridge the gap ("Oh, there are two entirely different places where you can set vital preferences on Opera Unite.")
I got it setup quickly as I was racing out the door to meet some friends I wanted to show the pics to. I arrive at their house and was excited I was going to be able to just pull the pictures up!
I goto the webpage and I discover two major problems. First, I had set up the Opera Unite service for "File Sharing" instead of "Photo Gallery" -- Whoops! -- Now instead of thumbnails, I had a list of 40 files (and no way to change it remotely). Worse, I discovered how painfully slow my upload connection was. About 3 minutes, per file. That's a problem, because my 3 friends are standing over the computer and we want to browse through and compare the best.
Okay, I'll just download them all and then look at them... Surely there is a... Nope, no way to download all the files. That's the second major issue. I resign myself to clicking each file (but not too many, because it errors-out) every few minutes. Eventually the files get downloaded and I show my friends.
Case 2: Different Times
Next, similar situation, now long distance. I want my friend on the East Coast to look at the photos and give me her opinion. I give her the URL and password information and say, "check it out."
She sent me an email not long after trying saying she couldn't get it to work. It so happens I have my laptop off at night (dang fan is way too loud). Now this is a "classic duh". Obviously, if you're computer is off, it's not going to work but this speaks to a major problem with this model. Asynchronous file-sharing is not possible. With stationary desktops, this isn't too much of an issue, with laptops it makes the solution completely untenable.
Case 3: It worked great! and can I....
Next up, a different friend in the Central Time Zone. I was going to go through the photos with her on the phone. By now, I've setup the Photo Sharing option so that thumbnails appear and it's much easier to navigate the photos. It works beautifully (it's a little slow but not unbearable). We spend half-an-hour on the photos and I get her favorites, we go back and forth, comparing, narrowing down. Excellent.
All of a sudden, I realize there are 20 other pictures I want her to look at. Now -- I'll be honest, my immediate mental solution may not have been the most efficient or effective but it was the first one that came to mind. I didn't want to change my file structure (dragging the 20 pictures from their folder into my "sharing" folder). So I decided to add another "Photo Sharing" Service (they are now called Apps). Now this process is unclear to me and I'm not sure I found the best method but I looked around for a way to just share another folder and couldn't find one.
I went to the "Add Opera Unite" service (after trying to add a "folder" and not having it display any "folder" selection options) and just added another Photo Sharing service, setting it to my other folder. Then I had my friend login to that service and we continued on. It is still very unclear to me how I should have done it "right".
Case 4: Got it working smoothly. It'd also be nice...
Finally, my friend in Mountain Time Zone (LOL, I just now realize I am traveling across the US). I was at a coffee shop far from home and plugged in my laptop to go through the pictures. It worked well but I realized how badly I wanted her to be able to provide recordable feedback on the photos so I didn't have to keep a little notepad of that information. Not possible. (even if I just typed in her feedback on each pic)
Case 5: Show me the pictures!
There is one intervening incident that took place that is worth mentioning. I was at a friend's house and I wanted to share a bunch of pictures I had taken earlier in the year. Again, large in size, about 40 of them. Alright, go Opera Unite!? I activated the Opera Unite service and pulled up the photos on my friends computer. My plan was to simply save the files that she liked on her computer.
However, it was running very slowly. I didn't understand it, we were on the same LAN together, it should have been operating much faster. At first I assumed that it was because all data was sent through Opera's proxy server in Norway (while this provide privacy and some additional security the cost is speed). Though our two computers were literally sitting next to eachother, it seemed each packet was having to go to Norway (via my slow upload) and back (via the somewhat speedier download).
I'm not sure what the issue was that caused the major slow down. Perhaps the proxy did activate and my theory is correct but I saw no way of *knowing* that. There is no indication, no flashing light, no status report.
Even in the photo gallery, saving files was not obvious at all. Right-clicking on the displayed image showed "void.gif" -- I'm sure it had something to do with how the navigation worked but if I'm sharing photos with my friends, 9 times out of 10, I want to let them keep them.
I quickly gave up, activated Windows File Sharing (gah) and luckily it worked. I dropped the whole folder in her computer and 6 minutes later it was done (She can prune unwanted pics later).
What went splat?
From my usability perspective:
First, the UI is bit unclear. I quickly got the idea of "services" (and I applaud the change to "Applications") and how to turn them on. However, the division of settings means I have to search different locations in order to make modifications (there are even further settings in opera:config but you'd only know that if you Googled Opera Unite and read through the FAQ). Further, I couldn't figure out how best to share multiple folders in different locations on my HD.
Second, no easy way to handle big bundles of files. Remember, the problem Opera is saying it wants to solve is "File Sharing". Sometimes people want to share a lot of files but there appears to be no elegant way of handling that.
Third, I couldn't fix my "wrong service" remotely. I wanted Photo Gallery but selected File Sharing (you can see why I made a mistake, File Sharing is broadly what I wanted to do -- I just wanted to share them in a different format). This is probably good in a lot of ways but all I could think about as I had my three friends looking over my shoulder was "OMG! How do I fix this!?" From a security perspective I see no advantage in not allowing the remote change of how the files you are sharing are formatting.
Fourth, asynchronous sharing. This is a tough one, because the idea is to make your computer a Server. It works as designed. However, that design means portable device users must make their devices available to share. This presents a lot of logistical problems that the user has to solve to use OU when there are *far* simpler asynchronous solutions available (Hi DropBox).
Fifth, as it is explained on OU it attempts direct connection and when it can't, it goes through a proxy. I'm not sure what happened when I attempted to share files on the LAN but the connection was excruciatingly slow and there was no way to troubleshoot it. (Even just seeing that the proxy is not active would have allowed me to figure out what on my end was slowing the LAN link).
Sixth, the last-mile is still an issue for many users. OU might work great when you're on your University LAN or if you happen to have a high-speed upload connection but for the rest of us, are our friends willing to wait? (idea: Opera Testers signs on to OU via a local dial-up connection and shares with their friends, rate experience)
Some of these are easy problems, some though, are symptoms of deeper issues.
The thing to remember about usability is this: It must work for nearly everyone. It doesn't have to work the same way, but if 30% of the users can't make something work, it's a failure. I'd argue, that for wide adoption, you probably need 90%. Think about innovations in the world, even if they are complex, if people find the payoff worth the investment of time then it's "worth it."
Look at cars and their drivers. There are legally stipulated levels of operational ability to use a vehicle but the payoff is you can go most anywhere within certain geographical constraints. (My "It'd be nice" are the cup-holders of the world)
Likewise, email isn't exactly intuitive but the payoff for learning how to use it is cheap, immediate communication with the whole world -- most importantly -- it works well once you gain that basic understanding. Like driving, once you get it you are set forever!
Next up... back to the high level evaluation.