Opera overhaul: WebKit-based Android browser due Q2

Opera reveals that the radically overhauled browser works on Gingerbread, gets "Off-road Mode" for bad networks, adds a content discovery tool, and will ship in the first half of the year.

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Opera's new WebKit-based browser for Android phones is due to ship by the second quarter of 2013 -- maybe even the first if Opera Software CEO Lars Boilesen gets his way.
Opera's new WebKit-based browser for Android phones is due to ship by the second quarter of 2013 -- maybe even the first if Opera Software CEO Lars Boilesen gets his way. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain--Opera Software has dropped the new engine into its browser and now has begun revving it up.

At the Mobile World Congress show here, the company began showing for the first time its new WebKit-based version of Opera for Android. That browser is the first product from a completely overhauled product line and technology strategy for the company based in Oslo, Norway.

Opera is changing the browser engine at the core of its software, dumping its own Presto for the open-source WebKit used in Chrome and Safari. It's a radical change in many ways: many engineers are changing jobs, dozens of them left the company, and the engine must be painstakingly bolted to Opera's user interface and other features.

A tour of the WebKit-based Opera for Android (pictures)

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Opera Software CEO Lars Boilesen at Mobile World Congress
Opera Software CEO Lars Boilesen at Mobile World Congress 2013 Stephen Shankland/CNET

But Chief Executive Lars Boilesen is excited about the decision, because it also means the company can concentrate on new features to set Opera apart rather than spending its time and money just to keep up with rivals and prod Web developers to test their sites to make sure they work with Presto.

"We want to be very innovative," Boilesen said, but Opera was "trying to compete on something where there's no perceived value or benefit for the user." The core performance of Opera no longer is enough to make the browser stand out as it did a decade ago when the company was going up against Microsoft's pokey IE6.

Now, the engineers are fired up again, building new versions and shifting attention to new projects, he said. "We can start doing all the things we didn't have time for," Boilesen said.

What kinds of projects? Opera is reworking the combination search-and-Web-address bar, it plans to integrate the Skyfire video-compression technology it's in the process of acquiring, and it's building a discovery engine to let people find Web content according to their interests. And Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie is hiring staff to pursue a long-held dream to make formatting technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) more suited to e-books. CSS, which Lie invented, has become a profoundly important Web technology, and Opera still employs some of the world's best coders that are familiar with it, Boilesen said.

The new version will be available in the first half of the year, Boilesen said -- indeed, he's pushing for the first quarter of the year. And a month after that, Opera will release an iOS version -- something it couldn't do with Presto because of Apple's rules.

Opera old and new
Opera will move its PC browser to WebKit, too, Boilesen said. But the first priority in the WebKit era is Opera for Android, which, unlike Google's Chrome, will work on Android 2.3 aka Gingerbread.

Browser engines process HTML, CSS, Javascript, and WebKit and turn it all into something presentable on a smartphone, tablet, or computer screen. Mobile browsing is dominated by Google and Apple's WebKit-based products, and Opera has struggled in the area because Web sites often were geared for WebKit and not tested with alternatives such as Opera, Firefox, or Internet Explorer.

So it's no surprise the company is pushing its Android version first.

The new browser moves from the company's own cross-platform interface to the native Android interface for better performance. And it has a number of new features, said Bruce Lawson, Opera's Web evangelist, who demonstrated the new software.

One prime new feature is called Off-road Mode -- a hybrid browsing idea Opera promised in 2011. Opera's Mini browser relies on servers to boil down Web pages and send lightweight versions of them to phones. With off-road mode, the company essentially built a mini Mini into the browser.

The Off-road Mode is activated by tapping the browser's Opera-logo menu button. When it's on, a red bar appears across the top of the browser screen, and users can check statistics to see how much data-transfer savings it enabled.

Among other new features:

  • Opera merged the browser's bookmarking tool with its Speed Dial feature to collect the user's preferred Web sites on a launch page. To add a Web page to the Speed Dial page, you tap a plus sign on the left of the Web address bar, and an icon for the page appears.
  • You can group multiple Speed Dial together the same way iOS and Android phones let people group apps, by dragging one onto another.
  • There's now a private-browsing mode that lets people open a Web page without leaving traces in the phone's browsing-history record.
  • Tapping a tabs button similar to that used by Android versions of Chrome and Firefox reveals a Cover Flow-like sliding array of Web page thumbnails. You can switch among them by swiping left and right. One of the thumbnails take you to the Speed Dial page.
  • Swiping to the right from the Speed Dial takes you to a browsing history page where you can see where you've been, but swiping to the left shows a new feature called Discovery. It shows a grid of Web pages selected to be of interest to you based on preferences you set, your location, and eventually your gender. And Opera -- a company, after all -- could sell ads on the page, Boilesen said.

The Discover tool, reachable by sweeping the Speed Dial page to the left or by tapping the compass-pointer icon on the Opera menu, shows a selection of Web content tailored to each user.
The Discover tool, reachable by sweeping the Speed Dial page to the left or by tapping the compass-pointer icon on the Opera menu, shows a selection of Web content tailored to each user. Stephen Shankland/CNET

New directions
Some have bemoaned the fact that Opera's Presto no longer will be an independent force for Web standards.

But some kind of change was likely. Opera was a pioneer in mobile browsing with Opera Mini, but that was a product geared for an era where there was a huge variety of phones on the market.

iOS and Android changed that profoundly, and suddenly the fact that Opera worked on 40 different platforms was no longer such a great selling point. Mobile network operators, instead of paying Opera to use a version of its browser, simply used Android its built-in browser.

"In 2009, all our revenue disappeared, because everybody jumped on Android," Boilesen said. The company has reorganized since then, shifting away from the carrier business and continuing to increase revenues, but dozens left Opera last year because of the WebKit restructuring, often voluntarily with severance packages.

Some of those employees left very disappointed that Opera was ditching Presto everywhere except its TV-browser line. But it's possible some of them could continue to push Presto, said Boilesen. He said he's open to suggestions about what to do with the code base.

"If somebody wants to buy it, we'd consider it, but I think it's more interesting to open-source it," he said. Handing it off to an old Opera employee is another possibility.

"It has to be to people who really want to do something with the code," Boilesen said. "If they do nothing with it, it's better we keep it."