Six months ago, I sure didn't think Opera would become a "player" or big hitter. However, there have been many things that have changed my mind.
Opera is now available for Linux, Mac, BeOS, Psion/Epoc, and a few other Operating systems. This represents a major leap. Being able to provide a browser for people across the spectrum gives them "sticking" power between work and play. Most of us have heard the hue and cry from Linux folks over Netscape/mozilla's Linux ports - from stability issues, size/speed, to display issues, NN has gotten tired and Mozilla is the "slow boatware to China". Opera very well could become the #1 browser on Linux this year. Everyone knows how much Mac folk dislike Microsoft and look for excuses not to use their software - Opera may be that excuse.
If you've noticed more sites seem to validate these days, you are correct. Almost all of the major sites on the net have been cleaning up their woeful html the last six months. Why? Opera is now free and they can test their pages in it. It is now rare for me to write a website and ask them to clean up their html. A year ago, I did it 10-30 times a day. If you look close, you can tell this is all the "opera effect" of having a free version out there that webmasters can look at their site in. It has also help Opera Software monetarily (they are now above 100employees).
The Opera user base grows by 25k per day and is now over 2 million strong. That put's it's installed platforms over that of WebTv and makes Opera a lock on the 3rd most often used browser.
They are tired of MSN competing with them. Opera is gaining support from cheery ISP deals.
IBM, AMD, and Psion have all endorsed Opera as an embedded client. That's pretty impressive when two of the major players endorse and embed Opera. They say there are many more deals like this set to be announced. Opera for Aol? It _could_ happen.
The ill fated Opera 4 had serious growing pains to the new code base. 99% of those problems have been fixed in Opera 5. Opera 5 is now close to the best code Opera has every put out. Stable and blazingly fast.
They said Opera didn't have a email client - they added that.
They said it didn't support Java - they added that.
They said it didn't do plugins - they added that.
They said it didn't run on the Mac or Linux - they added that.
They said Opera 3 didn't support CSS2 like IE - they added that in Opera 4.
They said Flash/Shock was tough to install - they embedded that.
They said it didn't have an instant messenger - they added an icq client.
They said the company was too small to survive - they added people.
They said Opera 3-4 didn't show enough pages out there - they've address that.
They said no major players would support Opera - They added IBM, AMD, Macromedia/flash, and Sun's Java.
They said no company could produce a browser that wasn't free - they've laughed all the way to the bank.
Looks like the critics are running out of things to say about the browser. That's clearly a commitment to do whatever it takes to keep progressing.
Opera a major player?
They already are.