Opera Next: Minimalist design, engine switcheroo

Norwegian browser maker ships the beta of a browser overhaul that includes a move to the open-source WebKit rendering engine

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.

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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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This story, "Opera Next: Minimalist design, engine switcheroo" was originally published by Computerworld.

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