Today's mobile web browser is a curious evolutionary semi-step, a strange species covered in vestigial nubs and half-functioning appendages left over from its desktop heritage. Coast is a new browser by Norwegian software company Opera—yes, of Opera browser fame—that wants to make iPad browsing work as if the web had been built from the ground up for tablets, not desktops.
When you think about it, tablet and smartphone browsers aren't very different from the browsers you use on the desktop. The UI is modeled after a desktop browser, so you have a back button, an address field, a search field, tabs, bookmarks, and so on ... all represented by tiny buttons. As for the UX, the goal of a browser like iOS Safari is to allow people to access websites designed with the desktop in mind on the go, but otherwise not rock the boat too much.
But Opera's been rocking the boat since 1997. A pioneer in creating and adopting many of the mobile browsing technologies we take for granted today, like gestures or optimizing pages for the web, Opera's new Coast app makes the worldwide web work like a slick nebula of apps that you can reach out and touch.
"Most technology evolves over time to be simpler and hide unnecessary clutter, but this hasn't really happened with browsers: the first browser 20 years ago, Mosaic, looks very similar to the browser running on your phone," says Huib Kleinhout, head of the Coast design team. "With Coast we decided to start from scratch and make a browser for today's Internet. That meant showing sites as apps instead of documents, a focus on tablets instead of PCs, and creating a smooth end-user experience instead of a power tool for computer nerds."
In feel, using Coast on the iPad is almost more like using a personal magazine app like Flipboard. Load up Coast and you are presented with an attractive speed dial of previously visited websites. A search bar above the speed dial allows you to search for websites using the name of the site, keywords, or (for purists) a URL, popping up site previews as you type.
"Although once you see it in action, Coast's approach seems obvious, with just one website per tile, it took a lot of engineering and UX testing to accomplish," says Kleinhout. "We tried to design Coast with the same principle that Apple has used to design its products in the past: With clever and powerful engineering, we have been able to create an experience which looks simple and intuitive to use."
Once you select a website, Coast zooms you into the page, but it loads the page full screen. Except for two tiny buttons calling up the speed dial and a list of open pages, Coast has virtually no browser-related chrome: going back and forward is done with simple swipes, and you pull-to-refresh, just like a native app. Any webpage element can be interacted with and shared online, just by touching it.
After just a few minutes with Coast, I found Opera's new iPad browser to be a remarkably fluid way to interact with the Internet. The touch control is smooth and intuitive, and the lack of web chrome makes the mobile Internet look bigger, brighter, and more app-like than ever before. It's a content-first approach that makes for a more pleasurable experience on the iPad, where browsing is done more for entertainment and leisure than for reference or work ... a design focus that extends right down to the Miami Vice style urban font of Coast's logo.
Another great Coast feature is a new safety engine. The web is a dangerous place, but with Coast, Opera has done a great job of hiding everything except the content of a webpage while constantly analyzing the pages that a user is browsing for threats, warning users if they stumble upon, say, a phishing site.
"To make a good touch experience, you have to build your app from the ground up to support it, not just pour some 'touch sauce' all over it later, which is what most other browsers do," says Kleinhout. "Other browsers are taking baby steps in this direction, but are still based on old paradigms like using a keyboard and mouse, or featuring page-by-page navigation. With Coast, we think we're taking about 20 steps at once."
Coast can be downloaded for free from the iTunes App Store.