If you’ve decided to create a browser for the iPad, you’ve got two basic options. You can write something that’s pretty much like Apple’s Safari, except with more features. Or you can produce something that’s decidedly different from Safari.
Opera’s Coast is an example of that second sort of iPad browser. Originally leaked last January and mistakenly expected to show up shortly thereafter, it’s arriving on the App Store today. Built atop the WebKit rendering engine baked into iOS, it bears little resemblance to Safari or Opera’s own iPad version of Opera Mini (which remains available). There are no backward or forward buttons, or conventional address bar, or bookmarks, or tabs, or home button, or any of the other things you might assume even an unusually imaginative browser couldn’t live without.
That’s because Coast isn’t really about web pages so much as websites. And it treats them less like sites than like mobile apps. In fact, what the interface resembles more than anything else is iOS itself. Icons for sites are arranged onto multiple pages that look like the iPad’s own home screen; you can rearrange them by pressing and holding an icon, whereupon they all begin to wiggle and can be moved around.
When you tap an icon, Coast shows a splash screen briefly while it’s loading the page — and then picks up wherever you were the last time you visited that site, in the same fashion that apps remember where you were. Sites are displayed nearly full-screen mode, and you swipe to move forward and backward. Instead of opening up pages into tabs, you can swipe through cards showing images of recent sites, in a manner very reminiscent of the multitasking interface in Apple’s upcoming iOS 7.
There are only a few other features. Built-in search suggests sites as you type, then hands you off to Google for full results. And if you attempt to visit a site Coast thinks is dangerous, the browser issues a warning and urges you to reconsider.
Opera’s Huib Kleinhout demoed Coast for me recently and let me get a bit of hands-on time with it. It looks fast, fluid, polished and fun. I could see it working especially well for app-like sites such as Google’s tablet version of Gmail, which I prefer in some respects to the Gmail iPad app.
Software companies have been trying to reimagine the browser for years — here’s a review of something called CubicEye, which I wrote in 2001, and one of RockMelt, which Yahoo bought and shut down last month. As diverse as they’ve all been, they’ve had one thing in common: They’ve failed. Conventional browsing may not have changed all that much in the past couple of decades, but it turns out that improving on it is no cakewalk.
Still, Coast is different from a lot of reinvented browsers in that it’s not different merely for the sake of being different; it’s a thoughtful retooling of browsing that feels even more iPad-like than Safari does. (I asked Kleinhout about the possibility of versions for other platforms, and he had no news to share, but the January rumor also involved an Android edition.) I’m looking forward to giving it a try on my own iPad, and seeing if my fingers find themselves turning to it more often than they pull up Safari.