For almost two decades, Opera has designed and distributed alternative desktop, mobile, and tablet-optimized web browsers, amassing arguably the world's most extensive bank of knowledge on the subject while they worked—and on their latest effort, Coast by Opera, they've put it all to good use. Designed specifically for the iPad, Coast isn't just an improvement on existing tablet browsers (not even their own), or a condensed version of a desktop browser. Instead, it's a complete re-imagination of what a tablet browser should look like, act like and feel like, for the way we use tablets most. The app launched yesterday at Tech Crunch Disrupt and suffice it to say we're impressed.
Coast replaces the space-invading visual elements we find in traditional browsers with a clean, unobtrusive interface—except for your favorite websites, which are arranged as thumbnails in a 3×3 grid on your homepage. When a site is open, it occupies the entire iPad screen, with the browser taking a backseat until it's needed again. Familiar touch movements like swiping, tapping, holding, and pinching to zoom, in addition to integrated security features, an easy-to-use bookmarking system, and playful takes on accessing hyperlinks, saving images, and other frequent actions, offer a fresh, elegantly simple and completely intuitive user experience.
The web browsers on the market today are, by and large, just faster, prettier versions of their stone-age ancestors, developed decades ago to support the extremely limited uses of the Internet in those dark and frightening days. The commands and visual cues we all cut our teeth on—forward and backward buttons, bookmark lists, search bars, tabs and window management tools, to name a few—were put in place when widespread mobile web was but a distant dream, and the content available on the web was a drop in the ocean of data we have at our fingertips today (which brings us to our next point: touch screens are a big deal, too). You can see where we're going with this: the browsers we use on our mobile, touch-based devices just don't make sense for the way we use the Internet anymore.
Enter Huib Kleinhout, Head of the Coast Team at Opera. In a fit of brainstorming early last year, he decided there had to be a better way to build a tablet browser—and he was right. He challenged a small, handpicked team of engineers and designers to forget everything they thought they knew about the way a browser should work. "We wanted to start from scratch," he says. "Toss everything out of the window, and design a product made for the way people use the Internet today."
First, they decided to build a tablet browser. "Tablets offer touch and very visual interaction—they're very nice to use, and you can still do anything you want on them. They're at the very center of personal computing," he explains. Next, they decided to do it specifically for the iPad. Rather than design a one-size-fits-all, device-agnostic browser, the team behind Coast by Opera designed one that supports the way we almost always use an iPad. With this much narrower focus, they designed a product that serves its specific purpose extremely, effortlessly well.
Coast is a browser application that allows you to access full websites as if they were applications: once the browser is running, it takes a backseat to the websites you need to access. The app disappears into the background to the effect that it feels more like a native application than a traditional browser.
The browser's homepage offers a search bar at the top of the screen, up to nine sites saved in a 3×3 grid of tiles at the center of the page, a small stack of tiles representing the five sites you've visited most recently, and a tiny icon in the bottom right-hand corner, which takes you to already opened sites. This acts as the "history" function, or Opera's visual answer to the list-form history page we use in traditional desktop browsers. There are an unlimited number of pages available to save sites to, and can be arranged in whatever order you prefer. These tiles and small visual icons live on top of a static background image, pre-loaded by Opera, but easily customized. Coast has everything you need for a highly functional and easy-to-navigate web-browsing session; nothing more, nothing less.
Once you've accessed a site, content is king: the page occupies the entire canvas of the iPad screen, with no space-invading navigation tab, buttons, or scroll bar to be seen. The only reminder that you're accessing the site through a browser and not as an app are thin black bars at the top and bottom of the screen—here, you can navigate back to Coast's homepage and your saved sites. In a site, you pinch and zoom the same way you would in the app, but it loads instantly—drawing on the compression technology from earlier iterations of its popular Mini browser—refreshes automatically, and offers the content and functionality of the full site.
Swipe left and right to move backward and forward, drag tiles upward to delete in a particularly satisfying visual addition (imagine websites disappearing, Star Wars opening text-style, into a black hole), and swipe to the bottom of the screen for detailed security information on the site you're visiting. If you'd like to save different sections of a site as unique pages on your "speed dial," you can do that too.
For Kleinhout and the rest of the team behind Coast, all of their hard work was worth it... precisely because they've designed a product that doesn't reveal just how much hard work went into it. Coast operates behind-the-scenes, powering a highly effective, secure, visually compelling and tactile experience. By making the sites we visit work as well as they can in the tablet environment, Coast marks an improvement on the entire browsing experience. "Working with technology, there are two things you can do," he explains. "First, you could make something possible that people couldn't do before. But here we did the other, more interesting thing—we made the things you already do a lot nicer, and a lot simpler. And that's the most rewarding kind of design."