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With Coast, Opera reboots its browser for mobile future

A brand-new iPad browser adopts that fixture of mobile operating systems -- a home screen with a grid of icons -- and marks a new beginning for the Norwegian company's business ambitions.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Opera's Coast browser presents users with a grid of icons for Web sites, an interface idea the company thinks will be familiar to people who've used mobile devices.
Opera's Coast browser presents users with a grid of icons for Web sites, an interface idea the company thinks will be familiar to people who've used mobile devices. Opera Software

What began as one person's programming project a year and a half ago has become a major new project for Opera Software as the Norwegian company debuted its new Coast browser for iPads on Monday.

Instead of looking like a traditional browser reworked for a mobile screen, Opera's Coast presents users with an interface that looks like what they're more likely to be familiar with in the mobile world, said Coast project leader Huib Kleinhout. Instead of an address bar, bookmarks, and tabs, people get a home screen with grid of icons representing Web pages, a search box, and a small home button at the bottom to get back to that home screen.

"I wanted to make a browser for the Internet as it is now, not for the geeks 20 years ago," Kleinhout said. Tablets are eating into sales of traditional personal computers, and Coast, which had been code-named Ice, is designed for that market.

Opera debuted the software at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference Monday and released Coast 1.0 on Apple's App Store. There's only an iPad version for now, and Opera wouldn't comment on iPhone or Android plans. The company already offers Opera Mini on Android and iOS and the heavier-weight Opera Mobile on Android, but if the company truly sees Coast as the browser interface of the future, it seems improbable that Coast will be limited to iPads in the future.

A browser 'for the Internet as it is now'
Coast marks an important new phase in a major transformation already under way at Opera. The company scrapped its own browser engine, Presto, formerly the core of its product line, and is rebasing its products on the open-source Blink browser engine used in Google's Chrome browser -- or in the case of Coast, the WebKit-based browser engine that Apple supplies for third-party apps on iOS. Opera's attention now is focused on higher-level improvements such as the user interface rather than the details of parsing HTML instructions and executing JavaScript fast.

Coast is emblematic of this user-interface emphasis. A user is greeted with a mostly empty screen with a background image, a search box, and a three-by-three grid of icons. It's kind of like a cross between a traditional mobile OS home screen and Windows 8's start screen. You can swipe left and right to reveal new home screens, and configure the browser so you can see more than a three-by-three grid of icons.

"This app is not about supporting the most standards. It's not about being six milliseconds faster on the SunSpider [speed test]. This is about making a better user experience," Kleinhout said.

Opera's Coast browser for iPads works in portrait or landscape orientation.
Opera's Coast browser for iPads works in portrait or landscape orientation. (Click to enlarge) Opera Software

Tapping an icon will of course open a Web page or Web app. The browser remembers what you were doing with it before, trying to maintain its state the way an OS might with an app that was in the background on an operating system. Opera tunes the system so sites where freshness is important, such as those for news or social networking, are updated.

You can also type an address into the search box. As soon as you start typing, it expands to show a larger view, and icons of possible destinations appear to the right. For example, typing "cn" might produce icons for CNET, CNN, and CNBC.

Kleinhout said the Coast approach presents Web pages more as the apps they're often becoming.

"We need to build a browser for tablets, and for [tablet] users, and for the Internet as it is now -- more application-based," he said.

After you've opened a Web page, you can tap the home button at the bottom center to get back to the home screen; the icon for the page you were visiting will be in a stack on the bottom center. You can flip among these pages to return to one, and drag an icon up to the grid to bookmark it for later use. And if you want to junk an icon, you can drag it up to the top of the screen, where a delete zone appears.

When one of the page thumbnails is selected, you can tap an info button to see details -- in particular how safe Opera thinks it is to visit based on details like security certificates and presence on lists of fraudulent sites. "The safety engine continually evalutes all aspects of security," Kleinhout said.

For now at least, the browser doesn't synchronize with Opera's sync service, which can remember passwords, bookmarked sites, browsing history, and more, Kleinhout said.

"It's a totally new way of browsing the Internet," Kleinhout said. "There's nothing like this on the market yet."

That could be either good and bad. It might be that people would welcome a style of browsing more attuned to what they do, and the mobile OS app interface is familiar. But even familiar interfaces can be confusing, especially if they're familiar but not quite the same.

Kleinhout doesn't believe people will be confused by having to choose between iOS's grid of native apps and Opera's grid of Web apps. The company has conducted usability tests to be sure.

"We see people quickly find their way around," he said.

If Coast catches on, Opera could see dividends. Searches in the search bar lead to revenue sharing from search ads on sites such as Google.

Competing with giants like Safari on iOS and Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome on PCs has been tough, but Opera has kept a small slice of the market over many years. With Opera Mini on mobile phones looking more and more a relic from a bygone era of smartphones, Coast will be to Opera's work to maintain its business and reputation.