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Summary:

WebKit has gained astounding traction in the world of the mobile web; the open-source layout engine is at the heart of all but two mobile browsers. But it won’t be the unifying force in mobile data that some wishful thinkers have envisioned.

WebKit has gained astounding traction in the world of the mobile web. The open-source layout engine is at the heart of browsers used in Android, iPhone OS, Symbian and webOS — and most recently, BlackBerry. That leaves Opera and Mozilla as the only two mobile browser developers of note to eschew WebKit. But it won’t be the unifying force in mobile data that some wishful thinkers have envisioned.

There’s a lot to like about WebKit beyond its dominant presence in mobile. The technology supports HTML5, which will help lessen the need for proprietary technologies such as Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight. Its small footprint and high performance make it ideal for mobile, where devices are smaller and less powerful than other platforms. And developers say it’s easier to code for than other mobile browser engines.

Indeed, WebKit has the potential to be a huge force in moving mobile data beyond native apps and toward a standardized world of web-based apps where developers can address huge mobile audiences with a single build and consumers aren’t constrained by the kind of hardware they carry.

But as I point out this morning in my weekly column over at GigaOM Pro, the world of WebKit isn’t quite as unified as it may appear. That’s because there is no single WebKit standard. Companies and developers are free to create and distribute their own individual WebKit browsers, and they alone are responsible for creating and pushing out updates. Which means it’s even more susceptible to fragmentation than Android, which is already struggling to cope with multiple versions of the OS being deployed by carriers and handset manufacturers around the world.

WebKit may eventually serve as a kind of baseline platform for developers of web-based apps, foundations they can then tweak for each WebKit-enabled browser. But it won’t do much to make life simpler for developers with a plethora of mobile operating systems on which to build. Read the full post.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Johan Larsson.

  1. All browser vendors should consider standardizing on WebKit, essentially making it the “Flash Player” for open web standards (HTML5, CSS3, WebGL, …).

    Such an approach would:
    1. ensure all websites render identically, in all browsers, regardless of vendor.
    2. greatly simplify the lives of web developers (only one rendering engine to develop & test for).
    3. eliminate the parallel development costs necessary, to maintain multiple rendering engines (e.g. Gecko, Trident, …).
    4. allow vendors to pool their resources, to make WebKit the most feature rich & secure rendering engine possible.

    Vendors would be able to differentiate their browsers, in other ways (e.g. UI design, plugin framework, JavaScript performance, etc.).

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    1. I wouldn’t want to see anyone standardizing anything at the moment. Competitive differences means that the market will find what works best. Mobile web is still in its infancy, and has been for a decade. At the moment, it still sucks, and it needs PLENTY of competition from various browsers with various background code options for the users to figure out what works best.

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      1. The thing that makes Flash & Silverlight attractive to developers is the ability to write code once & have it run virtually identically, on any platform with the Flash & Silverlight plugins. A similar approach could be taken, for open-standard based code, whereby WebKit essentially becomes the open-standards “plug-in”.

        The competitive/differentiating element can be achieved by the browser “wrapper” around WebKit.

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    2. Having all the web browser standardized on the same engine, so that one security issue in it affect all the browsers ?
      No thanks, diversity is good, and also bring competition, which is also a good thing.

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  2. [...] use on mobile platforms such as iOS4, Android, webOS and soon in BlackBerry handets, WebKit is currently the dominant browsing technology for mobiles. If Nokia already has a WebKit browser then, there’s a few things that a newly-branded Ovi [...]

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