Big news coming out of Oslo, Norway. Opera Software, the browser firm behind Opera Mini and Opera Mobile, is working on a new mobile browser called Opera Ice. Ice is being billed as the future of web browsing, and will be shaking things up in more ways than one.
Technically, the biggest difference between Ice and other Opera products will be its engine. Opera is one of the few browsers to have its own rendering engine, which is called Presto. The other layout engines are from Microsoft (Trident), Apple (Webkit), and Mozilla (Gecko). We might have several dozen browsers spread across numerous platforms, but all of them use one of these engines. Opera’s engine has been a source of pride for it, and has allowed it to shape web standards and lead the way with innovative features. However, it’s also the least popular of the existing engines. Since, no two engines are completely alike, this often means additional headaches for Opera in terms of website compatibility. Desktop websites have traditionally been optimized for Trident, due to Internet Explorer’s dominance. Mobile used to be a segment where Opera ruled the roost. It’s still a major player with more than 215 million mobile users. However, Webkit has emerged as the leading mobile browser engine. Google Chrome uses a modified version of Webkit, and the default Android browser as well as Chrome for Android uses Webkit. Apple’s Safari for iOS also obviously uses Webkit. Moreover, since Apple strictly restricts third-party layout engines on iOS, all iOS browsers are forced to employ Webkit. A a result of Webkit’s dominance in mobile browsers, mobile websites are invariably solely optimized for Webkit. Perhaps not wanting to play the catchup game all over again, Opera is ditching its venerable browser engine for Ice.
The change in browser engine will also help Opera to get into Apple’s iTunes App Store. Opera already has Opera Mini for iPhone and other Apple devices, but Opera Mini isn’t a complete web browser, and is ill-suited for modern, dynamic websites. “Opera mini is great, but it is not a fully-fledged offering like Chrome or Safari. There are too many sites it doesn’t work with,” noted Opera’s CEO Lars Boilesen.
Engine isn’t the only thing Opera Software is changing in Ice. It introduces a new paradigm for web browsing that is better suited for modern touch-enabled devices. Ice gets rid of the chrome entirely, and makes use of the full screen space to display content. This lends a web-app like feel to the web pages. Ice doesn’t look or feel like anything we have seen before from Opera Software. Opera’s products have never been about minimalism. They have been power horses, which offered gazillions of features to please the power users. With Ice, the priorities have changed. In fact, Opera is even going so far as to get rid of tabs. Internally, the browser will maintain tabs, but it will be abstracted from the user. One existing feature that will still be present in Ice is speed dials. However, Opera is ditching thumbnails for icons in Ice. Web search will also be retained in Ice. However, it will be completely redesigned to show live previews of results from various sources as you type your query. Check out the video embedded below to get a glimpse of Opera Ice in action. It was recorded during an internal all-hands meet held before Christmas, and was obtained by Pocket-Lint.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Opera Ice. I love the idea of a browser designed from the start-up for touch; however, I am also worried that Opera might end up hindering usability and productivity by taking minimalism too far. I will reserve my judgement for now, since we don’t have enough information. However, I really hope that Opera nails it, and will definitely be taking Opera Ice for a ride, when it shows up next month.