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Summary:

There’s both good and bad in Google’s news that it would be forking WebKit to create the Blink rendering browser engine. It really comes down to motive: Is it just for speed of development or for more control over web standards?

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Two large booms in the browser wars sounded on Wednesday; the loudest in a long time. First was the news that Mozilla and Samsung are partnering for a new mobile browser engine called Servo. Later in the day, before the echoes of that news disappeared, Google announced it would be forking the WebKit browser engine to create Blink. WebKit currently powers most browsers, so what gives?

Sorry, Mozilla, the Google news is bigger … for now

Depending on your point of view, this situation at its base level is either very good or very bad. On the positive side, both efforts are intended — at least partially — to create browser engines that take better advantage of multi-core chips and parallel processes to speed up the web on mobile devices. That’s great, but the biggest downside is the potential for websites to be rendered differently through different browser engines; that’s bad for users and for web developers, of course.

The Mozilla/Samsung effort is a long way off from any public final releases. And Mozilla isn’t really a force in the mobile web space these days, even though it makes a solid mobile browser. Samsung’s Android devices can obviously run Google’s Chrome browser now and Samsung has also skinned a browser for its devices; personally, I find Chrome to be a better choice, but opinions will certainly vary.

So the real story here, at least for the short- and medium-term, is Google’s effort. It has greater influence on more web users due to adoption of the Chrome browser on the hundreds of millions of desktops, laptops and mobile devices. And between Chrome and Safari, more people use the WebKit browser engine than any other. Here is worldwide browser/engine usage data from StatCounter, measured in March of 2013:

  • Chrome (WebKit): 38.07%
  • Internet Explorer (Trident): 29.3%
  • Firefox (Gecko): 20.87%
  • Safari (WebKit): 8.5%
  • Opera (Presto): 1.17%

The current browser state and Google’s reason for the change

The open source WebKit rendering engine is currently used by Apple’s Safari browser — both on OS X and iOS — Chrome, BlackBerry 10 and, ironically, Samsung’s Tizen platform. As a result, it’s the most widely used browser engine. But Apple owns the trademark for the name WebKit, and that tells you part of the reason Google is forking it. The other part? Google already has its own JavaScript engine in Chrome called V8, even though it uses WebKit for rendering.

Google doesn’t want to use browser technologies that have been primarily used or built by others when it thinks it can fork or build its own code to make the web faster. And that’s a good part of the reason for the fork: speed. Not just speed the end user will see, which was partly why Chrome was built — the other part was clearly strategic — but speed of development. From the Chromium blog, emphasis mine:

“However, Chromium uses a different multi-process architecture than other WebKit-based browsers, and supporting multiple architectures over the years has led to increasing complexity for both the WebKit and Chromium projects. This has slowed down the collective pace of innovation – so today, we are introducing Blink, a new open source rendering engine based on WebKit.”

As an open source project, WebKit has many chefs in the kitchen, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it also has different customers on varying platforms, so in order to keep it working for all, it takes a larger amount of effort in coding and testing than if it were used by a single entity. Alex Russell, a Google developer explains:

“Directness of action matters, and when you’re swimming through build files for dozens of platforms you don’t work on, that’s a step away from directness. When you’re working to fix or prevent regressions you can’t test against, that’s a step away. When compiles and checkouts take too long, that’s a step away. When landing a patch in both WebKit and Chromium stretches into a multi-day dance of flags, stub implementations, and dep-rolls, that’s many steps away. And each step hurts by a more-than-constant factor.”

As Russell works directly on Chrome for Google, it’s fair to question his motives here. It’s up to you to believe him or not. For my part, I do. I worked for years as a Software Quality Assurance tester in a Fortune 100 company and I’ve seen exactly what Russell is talking about. Projects were routinely delayed because the primary team made software changes that had negative downstream effects on other teams using the same code. Coordination was a nightmare.

The other side of the story: Web standards and bad intentions

The obvious question here is how much of Google’s effort is truly meant to improve the web versus how much of it is to take a shot at Apple? That’s a business question that can have a negative impact on web users as a whole if web standards are ignored or changed in favor of a particular browser component. Out of all the reactions I’ve read, Rob Isaac’s interpretation of the Blink news illustrates this best. He translates Google’s effort as:

We have a direct strategic interest in destroying Apple’s mobile platforms because their lack of participation in our advertising and social ecosystems does not benefit our long term goals. You should expect Chrome and Blink changes in the short term to be focused in this direction.

In the longer term, we aim to have sufficient control over the installed base of web browsers to dictate whatever conditions we consider most appropriate to our business goals at the time.

Snarky? Yes. But possibly part of Google’s rationale? Sadly, also yes. Google’s entire business is built upon the web, so exerting control over the web protects that business. In the Blink announcement Google says it will maintain transparency and use open standards, although it’s possible — likely even — that any new functions or features in Blink could be lobbied for becoming standards:

In practice, we strive to ensure that the features we ship by default have open standards. As we work on features, we track their progress in the web standards community with the Chromium Features Dashboard, which lets us be transparent about the status of each feature and about how we make decisions about which features to enable by default for the open web.

If, indeed, the Blink effort creates any new standards, it wouldn’t likely happen for a long, long time. For all the talk about HTML 5 over the past several years, the standard itself isn’t expected to be stable until 2014. But make no mistake: there’s clear potential for Google to have more direct influence over standard web browser technology as the result of Blink. And that’s something that no single company really should have.

It’s too early to say if the good outweighs the bad

For now, the situation is well worth watching over the next six to 12 months. We’ll see what Mozilla and Samsung actually produce with their collaboration, for starters. We should see a leaner and meaner Chrome as Google starts paring out code — up to 4.5 million lines and 7,000 files, says Google — from WebKit in Blink. Those are clearly good things. But we’ll also have to see what, if anything, from Blink looks like it could be pushed as a web standard. That will be the clearest warning flag that Google’s “Do no evil” theme is just a front in the new browser battle.

  1. Ansel Santosa Thursday, April 4, 2013

    Apple doesn’t directly use Webkit in the same way that Blink won’t. Apple has used Webkit2 since 2010.

    We will now have 3 major browsers than share a common upstream source. Changes that only affect one browser will not make life hard for others sharing that resource. However since there is still a net gain in Webkit-based browsers, innovation and contributions to that platform should increase.

    We still have healthy competition with less fragmentation. This is not the ideal state of the browser space but we’re certainly better off than we were 6 months ago.

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  2. My God, what a bunch of FUD in the Rob Isaac text

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  3. Anything that knocks apple down a peg is good, by a large margin. If Apple had their way, we’d all be running Apple’s proprietary hardware on every device that could ever hook up to the internet and every bit of software would have to be Apple approved.

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    1. And if Google has their way, we’ll be using all of their services exclusively on the web instead of any of their competitors, leaving all of our data and ultimately control of the internet in the hands of one company.

      I’m not disagreeing with you in the sense that an ecosystem where Apple controls everything would be bad. I’m agreeing with you on the premise that an ecosystem where any major company controls everything is bad, and Google is certainly no better than Apple in this regard.

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  4. A Well written article,
    If you ask me: do you trust Google? I’ll ask you: consider the alternative: We’ve seen Facebook and apple and what they’ve done with our sense of privacy, my point is google is best, for now…

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    1. @Adel, do you really think that Google is any more careful with user privacy than Facebook or Apple? If anything I think Google is more focused on using details from our browsing and search history to their financial gain than either FB or Apple. Remember that Google was the one who not only wouldn’t make Do Not Track the default browser option (Apple does this with Safari), but went out of their way to circumvent Apple’s setting (see Electronic Frontier Foundation/WSJ coverage: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/02/time-make-amends-google-circumvents-privacy-settings-safari-users).

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      1. Sherwin Yanzy Enriquez Friday, April 5, 2013

        Shouldn’t we be happy that the service provider (Google) intelligently mines our data so that they can deliver the right information to both the advertisers and consumers? I won’t mind being offered stuff that revolves around my interest, if that means I get to use a great product that continues to get better for free. In the mean time, advertisers get better value for their money by reaching out to the right people. It looks like a win-win-win scenario to me.

        Consider the alternative: Google blindly send ads to consumers. Consumers are annoyed. Advertisers stop advertising. YouTube shuts down (for real this time).

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    2. That is the dumbest statement I’ve seen today. Google is protecting your privacy better then Apple, HAAAHAAA HA HA. Neither Google or Facebook make money directly from users, they make money by whoring your information to advertisers. To Google and Facebook you are the product they are selling to their real customers, the advertisers. Apple makes money by selling hardware they have no reason to collect your data and give it to others. This is the reason Apple and Google split because Apple wouldn’t play nice and let Google bombard iOS users with ads and allow Google to suck up all your data. Just look how Google circumvented Safari’s privacy settings so they could continue to steal users information.

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      1. Nor Google or Apple with iAds sell any data to advertisers. You’re not the product, the product is advertising space

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        1. And who’s business model relies completely on the selling of advertisement. I didn’t say they sold it I said they whored it out. They only reason that advertisement space is valuable is because Google mine’s the data they collect on you and tell advertisers they can target the people they want to show the ad too.

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      2. I thought that we all use facebook and google services on daily bases, I was wrong perhaps you info isn’t, I don’t know weather Google and facebook sell our personal info, no one knows for sure, But Defending faceboook is something facebook itself can never do, I mean we can’t even control how much data can be seen publicly or by friends let alone control what advertisers can see , For instance: I found my timeline has my exact location, I never shared it, I never approved it, and yet it’s been accessible publicly for a while, another case is facebook apps: they have no sense of privacy, they send my friends ads while i’m chatting with them.
        That’s not the case with google I have full control over my G+ account and other services,
        if you wanna talk about behind-the-scene deals, prouve theme.

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  5. This is more of the same old crap — companies jockeying for position in an attempt to establish a competitive advantage by using proprietary technology — consumers be damned.

    When Apple forked Web Kit, it had nothing to lose because it was a minor player in the online wars and everything to gain. Microsoft had gained control over the Web, if not the standards, by strong-arming the desktop industry with a browser built into the operating system. However, it was vulnerble because it was not able to devise an interface for the mobile computing era and because that proprietary browser technology proved to be inferior, inept, clumsy and riddled with security holes.

    Hey, that describes Android now.

    But that isn’t the case now. Apple’s WebKit fork has led to many companies finally settling on a single, good Internet browser standard. Not content to leave well-enough alone, these companies are going to try to checkmate Apple and WebKit in yet another way — through the browser.

    Well, these new browser rendering engines are going to have to surpass Apple’s WebKit standard by a wide margin to make them compelling. old luck with that. And if they still are going to have to be fully compliant with the new and evolving HTML 5 standards.

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    1. “Apple’s WebKit fork has led to many companies finally settling on a single, good Internet browser standard.”

      And once again, they are coding to the browser, instead of to the standard. Just the other day, there was hubbub about Polygon’s Bioshock Infinite review, which was unreadable on any non-WebKit browser. Why? Because certain WebKit-only styles were implemented that ended up obscuring the text. This is no better than the days of targeting IE.

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      1. Err, WebKit-only elements. Not idea how “styles” slipped in there.

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  6. Oops…that next-to-last line should read “…Good luck with that…”

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  7. John R. Hogerhuis Thursday, April 4, 2013

    Google is the best corporate overlord you can hope for. They’re better than Microsoft has ever been. I’d say the time to get upset is when they actually start strong arming folks to get their way.

    That said, I find the “4.5 million lines of code” that are unnecessary to be a bit unlikely.

    It’s like they say in business… you can get rid of the middleman but not the middleman’s function. My guess is that most of that 4.5 million lines of code is there, doing something every once in a while and it will have be replaced with something that continues to do it.

    Every maintenance programmer has the dream of chucking the existing code base and starting over “clean.” Then they realize that “clean” means

    a) reimplementing a bunch of stuff that was poorly documented in the first place

    b) That their re-implementation will not be perfect either and so have all new bugs and misfeatures and

    c) They have other things to do like support the existing products with in this case, existing browsers that are not going away.

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  8. “But we’ll also have to see what, if anything, from Blink looks like it could be pushed as a web standard. That will be the clearest warning flag that Google’s “Do no evil” theme is just a front in the new browser battle.”

    How is this a warning flag? As long as they go through the W3C, everything is fine. The historical issue with Microsoft was that they :
    1. Had a near-monopoly on installed browser base
    2. Implemented useful web tech in the browser *without* going through a W3C standards procedure
    3. Kept IE’s rendering engine closed-source

    Blink is slated to stay opensource, just like WebKit. So the problem is????

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  9. Here’s another thought. If Google is developing its own standards, rather than adopting existing ones, could this point to a problem with the standards bodies, rather than the company itself?

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  10. And if Google has their way, we’ll be using all of their services exclusively on the web instead of any of their competitors, leaving all of our data and ultimately control of the internet in the hands of one company.

    I’m not disagreeing with you in the sense that an ecosystem where Apple controls everything would be bad. I’m agreeing with you on the premise that an ecosystem where any major company controls everything is bad, and Google is certainly no better than Apple in this regard.

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