Rein­vent­ing the Web Browser

Huib Klein­hout Head, Coast project, Opera Soft­ware

HWM (Singapore) - - Think - BY DAVID CHIENG

How do you see the in­ter­net ex­pe­ri­ence to­day, ver­sus that of five to ten years ago? Thanks to bil­lions of in­ter­net de­vices, mil­lions of miles of fiber- op­tic ca­bles and many other tech­ni­cal rev­o­lu­tions, the in­ter­net has now be­come ubiq­ui­tous in the lives of many peo­ple. We're now en­ter­ing an era where you can start for­get­ting where or how to con­nect, how to ac­cess or sync your data; in­ter­net ac­cess is be­com­ing an as­sump­tion, and peo­ple can turn their at­ten­tion to the con­tent and ser­vices that the in­ter­net pro­vides. Con­tent ver­sus vi­su­als; which comes first on the web? The best web ex­pe­ri­ence has both great con­tent and great vi­su­als. This has been one of our mo­ti­va­tions in build­ing Coast. With Coast, we are able to com­bine the best of both worlds: a tremen­dous amount of con­tent ac­ces­si­ble in an en­joy­able and vis­ual way. Tell us more about what in­spired Coast, as well as your goals when it came to UX de­sign. In re­cent years, more and more peo­ple have switched to us­ing tablets from PCs. Next year, we may reach the point where more tablets will be sold than PCs. This marks an im­por­tant shift in how peo­ple ac­cess the in­ter­net. How­ever, the browsers de­vel­op­ers are tak­ing only small, in­cre­men­tal steps in this di­rec­tion, still largely based on tech­no­log­i­cal par­a­digms from 20 years ago. Since the in­ter­net it­self and how peo­ple use it has changed so dra­mat­i­cally, we should take a fresh look at one of the core com­po­nents of our in­ter­net ex­pe­ri­ence: the browser.

If you look at where the in­ter­net is headed, you can see some im­por­tant trends. Apart from the tran­si­tion to touch de­vices, in­ter­net con­tent has be­come much more in­ter­ac­tive and app-like. In Coast, web­sites are there­fore pretty much pre­sented as apps. It's a new con­cept for browsers, but users are very fa­mil­iar with the par­a­digm from mo­bile op­er­at­ing sys­tems.

A third goal we fo­cused on was sim­plic­ity. It is not just hiding stuff but rather mak­ing it work au­to­mat­i­cally in the back­ground and out of the way. The se­cu­rity en­gine in Coast does ex­actly this; it runs in the back­ground and keeps on the look­out for threats with­out pre­sent­ing users with con­fus­ing tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion.

The user ex­pe­ri­ence for Coast has been de­signed to sup­port th­ese three goals in a sim­ple, vis­ual and touch­fo­cused ex­pe­ri­ence. The in­ter­face is not sim­ply a col­lec­tion of con­trols, but ev­ery el­e­ment of it has been de­signed in re­la­tion to the rest. Ev­ery an­i­ma­tion in Coast has a pur­pose and visu­ally ex­plains the user what hap­pens. The im­por­tant ac­tions are eas­ily dis­cov­er­able, and most ac­tions can be con­trolled by a swipe ges­ture in ad­di­tion to a tap, mak­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence fast, flu­ent and fun. Where does Coast stand in re­la­tion to Opera's other browser of­fer­ings? Coast is a brand-new prod­uct of­fer­ing from Opera. It pro­vides a unique brows­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that is tai­lor made for the iPad. It com­ple­ments Opera's ex­ist­ing prod­uct of­fer­ing on iOS, Opera Mini, and we be­lieve it's a great way to in­tro­duce browser in­no­va­tion. Are there any lessons learned from the mak­ing of Coast that you've ap­plied else­where within Opera? Sev­eral other projects in Opera have al­ready taken over parts of the code base, al­go­rithms, vis­ual de­signs or in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty de­vel­oped by the Coast team. You might rec­og­nize the Coast in­flu­ence in up­com­ing prod­uct re­leases. Coast is one of the many in­no­va­tive projects that Opera has ini­ti­ated through the years. Some of th­ese projects, like Opera Mini, have be­come a large com­mer­cial suc­cess, and most of them have con­trib­uted to keep­ing the spirit and drive for dis­rup­tion alive at Opera. What can you tell us about the chal­lenges in bring­ing Coast to life? The big­gest chal­lenge has prob­a­bly been the one we couldn't fully con­trol: the iOS de­vel­op­ment en­vi­ron­ment. Though iOS pro­vides an ex­cel­lent plat­form for beau­ti­ful apps we of­ten needed to push the lim­its -- par­tic­u­lar to the per­for­mance of the ren­der­ing com­po­nent (We­bKit) that all iOS browsers are re­quired to use.

The most no­table non-plat­form chal­lenge has been to de­sign and im­ple­ment a user ex­pe­ri­ence that is seam­less, co­her­ent and en­ter­tain­ing. The UX de­sign­ers have ren­dered at least a thou­sand full-fea­tured movies of the UI. From those, only a sub­set has ac­tu­ally been im­ple­mented. Through us­abil­ity test­ing, the best im­ple­men­ta­tions were se­lected and tweaked to make it into the prod­uct. This was a long, it­er­a­tive process with lots of trial and er­ror.

The most chal­leng­ing tech­ni­cal task has prob­a­bly been to dis­play each site as one sin­gle tile in the in­ter­face. This re­quires Coast to have a se­man­ti­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what a "site" is, based on tech­ni­cal fea­tures such as the URLs, icons and server prop­er­ties. While this is easy for many sites, it isn't for many par­tic­u­lar pop­u­lar ser­vices. We've de­vel­oped an ad­vanced web-ap­pde­tec­tion en­gine that de­tects and cat­e­go­rizes the sites as you visit them. This en­gine is a cor­ner­stone of the in­ter­face's sim­plic­ity.

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