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Opera is releasing version 12 of the Opera browser today, with new features for theming, controlling your computer’s hardware from the browser without using a plugin, speed, and security.

VentureBeat talked with Opera’s Jan Standal, vice-president of desktop products to get the skinny on all the latest features, and, perhaps most interestingly, on how Opera is competing in an increasingly tough browser market.

First, the new features.

Opera has always competed on speedy browsing, and that’s not changing now. With addition tune-ups for speed, including experimental hardware acceleration — using your graphics process instead of just your CPU to render web pages — Opera is doing its best to ensure clients have a fast web experience. Interestingly, since version 11 Opera has offered Turbo, compression technology developed for low-bandwidth mobile browsing, to desktop clients as well.

Opera 12 brings a new theming engine to the browser, offering a truly simple method to change the look and feel of the software you spend most of your day in. Halo fans: Master Chief is only one click away.

Perhaps more interesting to geeks and engineers, the new version of Opera enables control of your computer’s hardware without a plugin. For example, video capture has long been possible via Flash, but Opera is enabling it via HTML5.

“It’s part of a bigger trend,” said Standal. “We’re helping to evolve into a bigger app ecosystem. We have already added support for geolocation; in this version we’re adding support for HTML on the camera side.”

This allows cool effects such as being able to control a video game via your head motions, take pictures in the browser, enable advanced visual controls for software, or robust biometric authentication. Of course, many will just use the new functionality to take silly pictures and share them with their hopefully long-suffering friends:

Other updates include a sandboxing feature that allows the browser to continue operating when plugins crash, new language support, and better security notification.

The biggest question for Opera usually is, how can you compete against Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, or even Apple’s Safari? The W3schools browser stats show continued decline for Opera in this calendar year. But Standal had some good answers.

“Those are not good stats — Stats Counter is better, but still not perfect. Our trend over the past year is up.”

Opera currently counts 270 million users, including 60 million desktop users, 170 million mobile users, and the balance on smart TVs and other platforms. It is seeing growth in Android and on feature phones, in Asia, Africa, and South America, where it works with local telecoms and ISPs to bundle services and build revenue.

The good news includes Russia, where Opera has 25 percent desktop browser share, and 80-90 percent mobile browser share. And the desktop browser users are still growing at 15 percent annually, Standal said.

The new browser heavyweight contender, of course, is Google’s Chrome, which by some measures is now the most popular browser on the planet. Standal had some interesting things to say about competing with Chrome.

“Chrome is a new type of competitor — we’re used to competing with browsers that ship with the operating system — we’re used to being the alternative browser. Now with Chrome you have a different distribution channel. While Firefox grows organically, spreading from user to user, Chrome grows with very aggressive marketing, big billboards.

Chrome’s growth is completely linear — you can see it every day growing a little.  The good side is, more people now know what a browser is, that there are different options … and so Chrome is increasing our potential market.”

And in fact, ever since Chrome’s release, Opera has seen its downloads go up as well.

Opera was founded in 1994 and is based in Oslo, Norway. The company employs 800 people and had revenue of $47 million in the first quarter of 2012.

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