Comment When Opera Software killed its web browser's rendering engine Presto, and announced it will instead use WebKit, the company did so with the best intentions.
WebKit was a surefire bet: by mainlining the brain juice of Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari - the top dogs on the web and on smartphones - Opera hoped to break out of years of minimal market share. By popping the inner essence of Chrome and Safari into its web browser product, Opera could tap a rich supply of compatible add-ons, and cut its development costs by piggybacking on somebody else’s plumbing. Success was academic.
Not everybody welcomed Opera’s decision, though. Former Opera coder Anne van Kesteren, now with Firefox-maker Mozilla, reckoned it was a "sad day for my former team at Opera and for the web to lose a rendering engine".
Google seems to have heard the van Kesterens of the web, and this week announced it’s forking WebKit to create its own new engine for Chrome called Blink.
Unfortunately for van Kesteren, who may have briefly got his hopes up, Opera has said it will follow the search behemoth and use Blink in its web browser too.
We believe that having multiple rendering engines — similar to having multiple browsers — will spur innovation and over time improve the health of the entire open web ecosystem.
This is a declaration of self-interest by Google, and one that’s likely to tax the patience of netizens, who love diversity, and coders, who hate grappling with the quirks of competing browsers.
Google wants to invent its own wheel
First the practicalities: WebKit is a single, central project, but Apple and Google have each gone in different directions over the years with the source code. Chrome, for example, employs a multi-process architecture that's different to Apple’s Safari. As implementations drift further apart from this base, there comes a time when executives must question the money and manpower they are pouring into the team effort.
That time has come for Google: it now has a clear idea of what it wants to do with Chrome and feels inhibited by its continued participation in the WebKit effort. Barth talked of the growing complexity of the rendering engine and Chromium, the underlying browser project that Google crafts Chrome from. Barth wrote: “This has slowed down the collective pace of innovation.”
Google is worried that WebKit is holding it back. The ad giant has reached the same inflection point that Mark Shuttleworth, boss of Linux distro Ubuntu, reached when he said the makers of the GNOME desktop weren't moving at the speed or in the direction he wanted - so he forged the Unity touchscreen-friendly user interface for Ubuntu.
But why should Google go its own way? Chrome has become of huge strategic importance to Google’s business, not just on the web but also in business itself.
Google wants a better browser for its online stuff
The message is simple: make sure you aren’t missing out on features or performance by swallowing the whole roadmap – and that means chowing down on Google Docs and browser. As we’ve noted before, this was once the message and strategy used by Microsoft when it pushed IE as the frontend to its online apps and documents.
Google doesn't want to play with Apple
It’s not just the desktop that’s driving Google: the ad giant wants to tune its web browser for phones and tablets powered by its Android mobile operating system. This is something Google will want to do without tipping its hand to slab and smartphone rival Apple - which uses WebKit for Safari in its iOS devices.
Rolling out Blink for desktop and handheld kit also presents the opportunity to tightly couple app authors, from individuals all the way to Facebook, to Google's platform.
In forking WebKit, Google will try to assert Blink as the open project of Chrome and gently transform WebKit developers into programmers for Chrome. In this scenario, and with Chrome’s growing market share, the advertising titan gets to set the template for browser infrastructure on the web. So much for diversity.
There is a chance, though, that Blink could backfire for Google. This may happen if Blink becomes the new WebKit – a project that other browser makers adopt. If this happens, then we'll end up with a repeat of the frustrations and headaches Google complained of WebKit.
Blink, though, is unlikely to be deployed by Apple in Safari. It is even less likely Microsoft, the planet's other browser-making heavyweight, will join. Rather, Microsoft will use the weakness of WebKit and uncertainty of Blink to stress the common sense and stability of sticking with its own browser roadmap.
It’s too early to say whether Blink will succeed – that will come if people shift. And the van Kesterens of this world shouldn’t assume Blink will make the web more diverse and open. ®