Next for Opera: Minimalist design, engine switcheroo

Norwegian browser maker ships beta of browser overhaul that includes move to WebKit

Opera Software today released the first beta version of its flagship browser that uses the open-source WebKit rendering engine, making good on a pledge from February.

"Opera Next" -- analogous to a beta -- shipped Tuesday for Windows and OS X as version 15, skipping from the current production-grade browser, Opera 12, to synchronize with the engine's identifier. The application identifies itself as a WebKit browser, the same engine used by Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome.

Google, however, is ditching WebKit for its own variant, called "Blink," and Opera has promised to follow in Chrome's footsteps. The shift to WebKit is the first step.

"Opera for desktop has [been] completely re-engineered under the hood," the company said in a statement. "With the Chromium engine, users get a standards-compliant and high-performance browser."

Chromium is the name Google applies to the open-source project that feeds code to Chrome and Chrome OS, the latter the browser-based operating system that powers low-cost laptops like Samsung's Chromebook and Google's own much-pricier Chromebook Pixel.

Opera Next 15 sports a cleaner design, with much of the "chrome" -- the toolbars, menus and other UI components -- dispatched to the dustbin. Most browsers, including Microsoft's Internet Explorer, have taken cues from Chrome (the browser, different from the generic "chrome") for a minimalist UI that focuses attention on the page, not the application.

The update also debuted several new features, including a combined address bar-search bar that lets users type in URLs as well as search strings. Other browsers, notably Chrome, which first went the combo route, rely on a one-step-surfing address bar.

Also new is a reworked "Speed Dial," the name Opera uses for its new-tab page, that offers folders to better organize the thumbnails representing frequently-visited websites; a tool called "Discover" that's essentially a news aggregator; and Off-Road mode, which relies on Google's SPDY protocol -- pronounced "speedy" -- for faster page loading when surfing on a slow Internet connection.

Opera yanked the baked-in email client from Next, saying it was responding to "popular demand" to package it separately. While integrated email was once a feature of some browsers -- notably Netscape, the 1990's precursor to Mozilla's Firefox -- Opera was the last to amalgamate a client with the browser. A preview of the spun-off email software, labeled "Opera Mail," can be downloaded from Opera Software's site.

Opera Next is also available from the Norwegian developer's website in versions for Windows and OS X. A timeline for moving Opera Next 15 to a final release edition has not been set, but a spokeswoman said it would be available later this year.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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