Why Opera adopting WebKit as its browser engine is really good for the web

The popular Opera browser has announced it will move to WebKit as its future rendering engine, completing the “transformation” it started last April when it adopted the -webkit- prefix. The response from the web community has been mixed; some welcome the news enthusiastically, others lament the loss of diversity or express their worry of a browser monoculture. I’m quite happy about it, and I’ll explain why for those in the other camp.

One of the worst things to ever happen to the Web as a platform was the IE5-and-IE6 stranglehold on the browser market between 2000 and 2006. When Microsoft gained such a tremendously dominant level of control over the market, they ceased development and let IE6 just stagnate. If it wasn’t for Mozilla & Opera’s ongoing efforts, and Apple’s entry with its WebKit-powered Safari, the reign of IE would not have ended when it did.

People use this bit of history as an argument against a theoretical “browser monoculture” and warn that WebKit is just the new IE, and we’re repeating history all over again. There are two components to this argument, and both are a flawed comparison. To wit:

1. WebKit is not like IE

Internet Explorer was and is a browser fully owned and controlled by a single company, and its codebase is proprietary. You want to make IE better, or see its source code? Go work at Microsoft.

WebKit, on the other hand, is an underlying browser engine, not a browser itself, used by many different companies, controlled roughly by consensus between competing companies, and is open source. While Apple technically owns the WebKit repository, it doesn’t hold any exclusive ownership over WebKit as a technology.

2. Building “just” for WebKit is not like building “just” for IE was

Back when IE was king, people would build websites and intranet applications that only worked in it, and no other browser. Because, “why bother?”

Today, there are many people who build websites and only properly cater to WebKit-based browsers—most notably mobile sites—and that is a problem. However, it is not the same problem: the degree in which such sites “work” is significantly better than how it used to be with IE6. With Opera’s move to WebKit, that situation will, in fact, only get even better for end users. Furthermore, standards support has come a really long way since the days of IE6, and interoperability is much, much greater between all browsers today.

So what does that mean?

IE6 was a rather good browser at the time it came out. But developers quickly realized that you could do relatively little with it, in terms of both design and application ideas, and it was riddled with bugs—some incredibly infuriating.

The problem of a single browser dominating the market isn’t that it’s a single browser dominating the market; web standards exist and have long been advocated for specifically for the purpose of making it be as if there is only one browser on the market. Standardization, in every industry, has at its core the desire for building and developing only one version of your product, and know it to work no matter how many competitors exist in the market.

The more companies that have a vested interest in WebKit as the underlying engine powering their unique and individual browsers, the less likely it is that any one company will have dominant ownership of a crucial piece of technology that over a billion people use to access the Web with. And the less likely any one company controls much of the market, the less likely development on that engine will be halted or slowed.

As Bruce Lawson, an Opera developer evangelist, puts it in his personal blog post on the news:

[WebKit] isn’t run by a single organisation; a report on WebKit this month says “it is also noteworthy how the diversity of the project is increasing, with new players starting to show a significant activity.”

It therefore seems silly to compete against it. Instead, we’ll join and use our experience and resources to improve it further.

There are many great people who work at Opera. They’ve come up with excellent innovations over the years that I’ve long enjoyed (albeit generally in other browsers as they adopted them as well). I’m excited at the prospect of these people’s innovative ideas, their dedication to accessibility and best practices, and their devotion to web standards, all being brought to WebKit.

I’m sad that the news inevitably means the laying off of a number of people at Opera; however, I won’t much mourn the loss of a closed browser engine I couldn’t visibly report bugs to, one which has given me tremendous grief with its quirky behaviors from time to time (seriously, like IE5 all over again).

Opera users will, eventually, get the best of both worlds: a widely used engine that works great on mobile and receives lots of developer attention, packed in a browser by an innovative company whose vision for UI has earned itself many loyal, devoted customers.

Web developers can feel less bad about being lazylook forward to dropping a prefix and having fewer browser differences to deal with, making for cleaner source code and more time spent developing great features.

And the Web at large will benefit from more smart people moving a critical technology forward, instead of duplicating efforts in parallel. No one owns WebKit the way Microsoft owns IE, and this move will make WebKit even better for its hundreds of millions of users.

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