Print 19 comment(s) - last by TakinYourPoint.. on Feb 14 at 8:54 PM

Shift leaves only three major web rendering engines on the market

And then there were three.  

That's the take home message from Opera Software ASA's (OSE:OPERA) somewhat surprising announcement that it is going to transition to the WebKit platform, taking its 300 million plus users with it.

I. Opera Joins Up

Opera boasts tens of millions of desktop users, but is a niche player in the desktop browser market compared to the likes of Google Inc. (GOOG), Apple, Inc. (AAPL), The Mozilla Foundation, and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT).  However, Opera has relatively strong market shares in both the third party mobile browser (smartphones/tablets) and [gaming] console markets.

Opera long used a rendering engine (also known as a "layout engine") named Presto.  Opera's work with Presto was important to the internet, as the Norwegian company often pushed web standards that other plays like Microsoft or Mozilla were slower to adopt.

Mozilla uses an open source rendering engine named Gecko, and Microsoft uses a proprietary engine named Trident.  But between Safari (Apple) and Chrome (Google), WebKit is estimated by market research firm StatCounter to be the world's most used layout engine with more than a 40 percent market share.

WebKit is published under a mixture of GNU LGPLv2.1 and BSD v2.0 licenses and thus is consider relatively "open source".

II. First WebKit Product on the Way

At Mobile World Congress 2013 in Barcelona, Spain, Opera plans to show off the first fruits of its new WebKit development path, unveiling an Android browser based on WebKit.

Opera Mmini
Opera will release new mobile and desktop browsers based on WebKit.

Opera's chief technology officer Håkon Wium Lie says the shift to WebKit should free up development resources for Opera.  That makes sense -- Opera is a small company and trying to develop the world's fastest rendering engine and developing the best browser user interface is a potentially infeasible goal.

Comments Mr. Lie, "The shift to WebKit means more of our resources can be dedicated to developing new features and the user-friendly solutions that can be expected from a company that invented so many of the features that are today being used by everyone in the browser industry."

Tabs were first introduced to the browser market by Opera, and Opera was the first major player to make use of heavy server-side webpage compression for reduced data traffic.

III. Users Are Mostly Opposed to Switch

"Haavard", an Opera employee writes a blog on the shift.  He says at first he was "skeptical" that the move would be beneficial, but has since warmed to the idea.  He writes:

Yes, monoculture is bad, but Opera was never really in a position to prevent it in the first place. Even with Opera as the dominant mobile browser and more than 300 million active Opera users in total across all platforms, web developers still designed just for WebKit.

?If switching to WebKit allows us to accelerate our growth and become an important contributor to the project (we will contribute back to WebKit, and have already submitted our first patch (bug)), we may finally have a direct impact on the way web sites are coded. We want sites to be coded for open standards rather than specific browsers.

An official poll showed that Opera users aren't so sure.  45 percent said it was a bad idea; 31 percent were "not sure"; and only 23 percent were convinced it was a "good idea".

Sources: Opera [1], [2], [3]

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By Motoman on 2/13/2013 3:45:32 PM , Rating: 4
...considering that Opera has, quite literally, been the one to create essentially every new innovation in browsers over the last 10 years or so, I have to wonder about this.

There's been close to nothing invented by any other browser provider...what is the future going to hold if Opera moves to a codebase they don't themselves own?

RE: Hmmm...
By Guspaz on 2/13/2013 5:57:13 PM , Rating: 2
This changes nothing. Opera had full control over their codebase before. They will have full control over their code base after. While it seems like they'll be trying to stick to the mainline branch, there's also nothing stopping Opera from deciding to fork and take WebKit in a completely different direction from Apple/Google.

Consider that WebKit is itself a fork of KHTML... Consider also how different Safari and Chrome are, despite sharing the same layout engine. There's a heck of a lot more to a web browser than the layout engine.

RE: Hmmm...
By Tony Swash on 2/13/2013 8:06:45 PM , Rating: 1
Consider that WebKit is itself a fork of KHTML... Consider also how different Safari and Chrome are, despite sharing the same layout engine. There's a heck of a lot more to a web browser than the layout engine.

Exactly. Browser diversity sitting on top of a ubiquitous feature rich, developing, open source, common render engine garnering development input from many sources seems to me to be a perfect sort of set up.

RE: Hmmm...
By PrinceGaz on 2/13/2013 9:21:53 PM , Rating: 2
Browser diversity ... common render engine ... seems to me to be a perfect sort of set up

I disagree. Multiple independent developers with their own engine help encourage innovation and enforce compliance between all parties.

Fewer engines will mean less innovation, and an increased risk we end up with a repeat of "Internet Explorer" standards on many sites because it has become the dominant browser (though this time around the jury is still out on which of the three it will be).

RE: Hmmm...
By spaced_ on 2/13/2013 10:07:05 PM , Rating: 1
Multiple independent developers with their own engine help encourage innovation and enforce compliance between all parties.

This statement is contradictory. The more differing engines you have, the harder it is to enforce standards compliance. Particularly when the engines are proprietary and dominate market share and the companies that control them refuse to engage in standards compliance (e.g. Trident in past years).

Encouraging innovation I'm not so sure about either. I'd probably say Opera will be more innovative after this move as maintaining Presto would have consumed a huge amount of their resources for very little gain or competitive advantage. Any potential competitive advantage they had in Presto they can develop into Webkit if they really want. If other contributors don't want it in the main branch, that's what forking is for.

If Presto was open source then your statement would have some merit. But this is a good thing for Opera and the Webkit project will benefit from their expertise. Win win really.

RE: Hmmm...
By maugrimtr on 2/14/2013 8:47:32 AM , Rating: 2
I think a lot of people don't get open source. Opera can freely create a branch of the source code, add their own innovations, and still copy in (using version control software like git) any bug fixes or features that Apple/Google make. It does not require them to use a single monolithic version in their browser.

They can still innovate away just as they always have - far more efficiently since they now benefit from bug fixes coming from Chrome/Safari users (vs their own minor userbase along towards Presto).

RE: Hmmm...
By TakinYourPoints on 2/14/2013 8:54:47 PM , Rating: 1
I disagree. Multiple independent developers with their own engine help encourage innovation and enforce compliance between all parties.

That doesn't make sense. The whole reason open platforms like Webkit improve so rapidly, are so robust, and are so standards compliant, is that you have numerous entities making improvements to a single engine.

The main "proprietary" browser improvements are in the front end (ie - Google's excellent and revolutionary work with the Chrome UI), and this is where Opera can continue to innovate on their own browser.

As far as the back end goes, Opera was previously limited to their own improvements in Presto. Now they also benefit from bug fixes and optimizations from Chrome and Safari users/developers, and vice versa.

RE: Hmmm...
By NellyFromMA on 2/14/2013 4:20:43 PM , Rating: 2
Isn't browser diversity the bain of web developers and web designer existence?

If they are hampered by a multitude of divergent engines, doesnt THAT hamper innovation?

Just curious on thoughts.

RE: Hmmm...
By toyotabedzrock on 2/14/2013 2:43:18 PM , Rating: 2
They are switching to V8 as well.

Side note Presto is the layout engine and Vega was the rendering engine.

The unusual split allowed them to port to new platforms quickly.

RE: Hmmm...
By bug77 on 2/14/2013 4:21:15 AM , Rating: 2
Whatever they invented (and they did new stuff, unlike others that just sue), has rarely, if ever, had to do with rendering. Off the top of my head, Opera gave us tabs, speed-dial, mouse gestures, low memory usage and traffic compression for mobile. I think they can switch to Webkit and still be able to innovate/invent. And if they contribute to Webkit, there's even more win for everyone. The only real danger is Webkit being resistant to changes, but I would assume Opera did their due diligence before announcing the switch.

Long-time Windows Opera user
By PrinceGaz on 2/13/2013 9:08:37 PM , Rating: 3
I've quite mixed feelings about this. Opera hasn't been perfect over the years, but its been very good and combined with good security software (and common-sense) and the fact that next to no desktop browser exploits target it, has meant I've been trouble free. Why try to find holes in a browser, no matter how good it is at its job, if only 2-3% of people on the platform actually use it?

Where does this leave their mobile development though? I thought the whole point of desktop Opera was as the testing ground for the mobile ports of it. Then again though, smartphones are now just miniature desktop machines now so perhaps their specialised mobile market is vanishing?

That still leaves the problem of less players in the browser market, and an increased risk of one pushing its own standards should it gain a sufficiently large share.

RE: Long-time Windows Opera user
By spaced_ on 2/13/2013 10:11:44 PM , Rating: 2
They're not going anywhere.

They're just switching their rendering engine to a better one that costs them significantly less money to maintain.

By StealthX32 on 2/13/13, Rating: -1
RE: WebKit...
By extide on 2/13/2013 3:37:49 PM , Rating: 3
Nothing. There are plenty of other people who contribute to it.

RE: WebKit...
By LRonaldHubbs on 2/13/2013 3:38:40 PM , Rating: 2
KDE, Nokia, Google, Bitstream, RIM, Igalia, and others will continue...

RE: WebKit...
By Flunk on 2/13/2013 3:47:00 PM , Rating: 2
Seeing as WebKit started off as a fork of the KHTML rendering engine for the Open-Source KDE project I can't see a problem. Google certainly has enough money to fund the project by themselves.

Seriously, why do so many people think that Apple is essential for everything these days. The real reason WebKit exists in it's current form is a whole host of companies decided that it would be cheaper to work on one open-source project than build their own web browsers. They were definitely right too.

RE: WebKit...
By Tony Swash on 2/13/2013 5:32:15 PM , Rating: 1
This article gives a very detailed breakdown of which company contributes what to webkit. Lots of data.

To quote from the article

Some interesting results are the share of contributions by the two main companies behind the project (Apple and Google), and how it has evolved from a project clearly driven by Apple, before 2009, to the current situation, with Google leading the top contributors table, and both Apple and Google being almost equal in contribution share over the whole history of the project. During the last years, it is also noteworthy how the diversity of the project is increasing, with new players starting to show a significant activity.

It looks to me like webkit is in a very healthy situation. Both the major contributors, Google and Apple, want a healthy, open, standards based internet for different reasons. The end result is very good for everyone except possibly Microsoft, I wonder why they bother developing their own browser engine now that they have clearly lost the battle to control the web standards, it seems a bit pointless.

RE: WebKit...
By spaced_ on 2/13/2013 10:28:31 PM , Rating: 2
Indeed. Open source = good for everyone. Except of course the greedy.

Microsoft should open source Trident. Or just dump it.

RE: WebKit...
By InternetGeek on 2/13/2013 5:29:29 PM , Rating: 2
While Apple started the Webkit project and eventually open sourced it, it's just another member of the community behind Webkit. Nothing much would change if suddenly Apple dissapeared into another dimension.

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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