Browser company Opera is abandoning development of its own browser engine and adopting WebKit.
To provide a leading browser on Android and iOS, this year Opera will make a gradual transition to the WebKit engine, as well as Chromium, for most of its upcoming versions of browsers for smartphones and computers.
Note that Opera is not only adopting WebKit but also the Google-sponsored Chromium engine, which is the open source portion of the Google Chrome browser.
What are the implications?
The obvious one, from Opera’s perspective, is that the work involved in keeping a browser engine up to date is large and the benefit, small, given that WebKit and Chromium are both capable and also close to de facto standards in mobile.
This last point is key though. If everyone uses WebKit, then instead of the W3C being the authority on which web standards are supported, then the WebKit community becomes that authority. In the case of Chromium, that means Google in particular.
On the desktop Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox both have substantial market share, but in mobile both iOS and Android, which dominate, use WebKit-derived browsers. BlackBerry is also using WebKit in its new BlackBerry 10 OS.
There is already a debate about web pages and applications which make use of webkit-specific tags, which often implies a degraded experience for users of other browsers, even if those other browsers support the same features. A year agao, Daniel Glazman, co-chairman of the W3C CSS working group, wrote a strongly-worded post on this issue:
Without your help, without a strong reaction, this can lead to one thing only and we’re dangerously not far from there: other browsers will start supporting/implementing themselves the
-webkit-*prefix, turning one single implementation into a new world-wide standard. It will turn a market share into a de facto standard, a single implementation into a world-wide monopoly. Again. It will kill our standardization process. That’s not a question of if, that’s a question of when.
Therefore, Opera’s decision is probably bad for open web standards; though web developers may not mind since one fewer browser variation to worry about makes their life easier.
People commonly raise the spectre of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 and the way it effectively froze web standards for several years, thanks to its dominance. Might WebKit’s dominance repeat this? It is doubtful, since the IE6 problem would not have been so great, except that Microsoft decided it would rather promote its own platform (Windows) rather than the web platform. The WebKit community will not do that.
On the other hand, for rivals like Microsoft and Mozilla this is a concern. Something as important as web standards should ideally be vendor-neutral, so that big companies do not use standards as a means of promoting their own platforms and making other platforms work less well. In practice, it is rare that standards are truly vendor-neutral; the big vendors dominate standards groups like the W3C for exactly this reason. That said, it would be true to say that the W3C is more vendor-neutral than WebKit or Chromium.
Leaving all that aside, another question is what value Opera can add if it is building on the same core as Google and Apple. That is a matter I hope to clarify at the Mobile World Congress later this month.