Opera’s New “Ice” Mobile Browser Launching In February For Android And iOS, Drops Presto For WebKit

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADZbdxyvoOY?feature=player_embedded]Opera unveiled a major new mobile browser initiative called Opera Ice today via Pocket-lint, coming in February and based on the same WebKit rendering engine used by Apple’s Safari and Google Chrome, rather than Presto, which has powered Opera since 2003 (including server-side compression on the iOS side of things). The browser engine change signals Opera’s intent to remain relevant in a changing browser market, as does Opera Ice’s unique control scheme and user interface.

Opera’s CEO Lars Boilesen describes the new browser in an internal video published by Pocket-lint, which eschews buttons in favor of an all-touch gesture-based control system. Tabs are also gone, supplanted by a home screen with page icons, and a single combined search and URL bar handles all new page opening duties. The¬†browser¬†looks to take the web application model of browsing to its natural conclusion, and Boilesen even describes pages as “apps” repeatedly in the video. Navigation back and forth between full-screen apps is handled via gestures, and also through a home screen-like software button at the bottom of every page.

“No buttons, no menus, just a pure visual experience, that’s what we’re building here,” Boilesen says at one point during the video. The idea is to hide as much of the chrome and tech as possible, including when it comes to security. He demos venturing onto a malware site, which brings up a very visual, very easy-to-grasp warning featuring a caution tape animation.

The idea behind Opera Ice is that Opera mini, while something Boilesen calls “great” in speaking to Pocket-lint, isn’t up to snuff when compared to the competing offerings like Apple’s mobile Safari or Google’s Chrome for Android. Rather than try to iterate its current offerings to get there, the company decided to go back to the drawing board and build something from scratch that is designed for use in a mobile environment. Opera mini will continue to be supported however, and there’s apparently also a new version of Opera for desktop slated for a March release.

iOS and Android made sense as the first logical targets given their market share, but Windows Phone may be in the cards depending on what it can manage to drum up in terms of market share according to Boilesen. As always with a new mobile browser, however, the challenge will be making something attractive enough to replace a user’s built-in software. Even with a unique control paradigm that shows a lot of promise for touchscreen use, Opera Ice will have to face the fact that iOS users can’t select a third-party browser as their default choice. Even so, I’m interested to test out Opera’s latest, and see if it does indeed push the dial forward in terms of how we browse the web on smartphones and tablets. The attempt to make web apps work and operate more like native apps in particular looks like an idea that could have legs.