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The Amazing Rise of WebKit Mobile

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safari.jpegThe Google Android SDK, released yesterday, confirmed what had been long been rumored: Google’s mobile platform uses WebKit, an open source browser engine . “We have been working on our mobile implementation of WebKit for quite some time,” someone from the Android team wrote on The Surfing Safari, the official blog of the WebKit community.

Given how much Google has helped Firefox, its choice of WebKit strikes me as hugely significant for the browser market. Such an endorsement is only going to increase the importance of WebKit’s growing presence in the mobile ecosystem.

WebKit is an open source web browser engine. WebKit is also the name of the Mac OS X system framework version of the engine that’s used by Safari, Dashboard, Mail, and many other OS X applications. WebKit’s HTML and JavaScript code began as a branch of the KHTML and KJS libraries from KDE.

Even though Opera is still the mobile browser to beat, WebKit-based browsers are fast becoming a common presence in some of the newer mobile platforms. In addition to Google’s Android, WebKit has found a home inside the Apple iPhone platform as well as the Nokia-backed Symbian S60 phones, such as the N and E Series devices.

If you take the total number of the N and E Series phones and iPhones, my back-of-the-envelope (and highly unscientific) estimates put the number of handsets using WebKit-based browsers at over 30 million.

In the desktop domain, the growing popularity of Mac OS X computers has resulted in the WebKit-based Safari grabbing between 3 and 5 percent of the total browser market share, thereby making it the third most popular browser after Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox.

The real opportunity for WebKit seems to be in the mobile world, where no browser has been able to establish an IE-like hegemony. Sam Sidler, who has been working on the open source Camino browser, in a recent essay wrote,

Mobile browsing is still very much in its infancy, but innovation on the mobile platform is moving faster than ever. What you are able to do today on your cell phone (surf the Web, view digital media) isn’t anywhere near what you’ll be doing in five years

The growing popularity of WebKit, according to some of my browser guru sources, is due to the fact that it’s easier to code for compared with other browser engines. It also has a well-organized and smaller code base, which is easier to manage. Finally, it is quite fast and renders faster, which makes it attractive to developers.

More importantly, however, WebKit has a smaller footprint, which means it has less memory and CPU requirements and as such, is ideal for the mobile environments. Apple’s (and now Google’s) mobile ambitions have prompted the company to devote a lot of resources to WebKit, turning it into a viable mobile platform. In comparison, IE Challenger, Firefox and its Gecko engine are only getting started in their mobile efforts. They’ll have to cover a lot of ground before they even catch up with WebKit.

35 Responses to “The Amazing Rise of WebKit Mobile”

  1. For those that believe apple “created webkit” a quote from wikipedia

    “The code that would become WebKit began in 1998 as the KDE project’s HTML layout engine KHTML and KDE’s JavaScript engine (KJS). The name and project ‘WebKit’ were created in 2002 when Apple Inc. created a fork of KHTML”

    So Apple gave it the webkit name. that is not creating webkit. They also took 3 years to “open source” it. even though it was born from open source.

  2. And now Google Android and Palm Pre are both using the Webkit rendering engine. This is good news. Hopefully they will join IE and intelligently agree to web standards for developers.

  3. Apple did not create Webkit. Apple took KHTML code from KDE and modified it into Webkit. So Apple should NOT get credit for creating Webkit. Far from it, Apple should be disparaged for taking KDE’s code without providing feedback that would help KDE.

  4. reinharden and fog city dave, you’re both wrong about WebKit. WebKit was, and continues to be, based on alot of the work of the KDE project (KHTML, KJS, KSVG).

    The forking of it by Apple to create the WebKit platform was well and good, but the sending back of heaps of revised code that had to be sorted by the KDE folk created discrepancies in communication between KDE and Apple early on.

    But now that KDE4 is out, WebKit is being reintegrated into the KDE, particularly since Trolltech (which bankrolls a few of the KDE developers because of their preference for their Qt toolkit) was bought by Nokia, which uses WebKit in their S60 mobile browser.

    Either way, WebKit, except for the name, did not start out as an Apple creation. KDE plays a continual role in WebKit’s development as much as the engineers from Apple and Nokia.

  5. I don’t really care who exactly did what, but it’s nice to see this for 2 reasons- 1) Even if it’s not 100% standards-compliant, it is at least open-source, and 2) Safari on the iPhone/iPod Touch is a great mobile browser, so hopefully other devices will get a very nice browser too.

  6. Yeah, we’re stocked about Android running on WebKit too! With the system requirements in mind (min. 200 Mhz processor), we’re actually going to try to support the platform with the rich interface we so far reserve for the iPhone/iPod for our WPhone plugin (WordPress Mobile Admin plugin):

    Then, we’re also hoping to do the same for the most recent Nokia devices (S60WebKit), and hopefully the OpenMoko if they do go with WebKit in the consumer release (late).

    One thing though, WebKit is indeed gaining ground and is getting all the press, but people usually forget to also mention how WebCore (JS engine) is also a rising star, which to me is actually more significant.

  7. “IE’s ActiveX “extensions””: this is how shockwave works in IE. Nothing to feel bad about.

    If standards complaint went all the way – we have things like SVG that lacks z-index layering, and firefox that lacks basics like “outerHTML”.

    Hate standards when it is in the hands of the puritans. Let competition and innovation be encouraged, standards can (and should) always follow. The world is not perfect after all.

  8. @Neil: If any one single rendering engine dominates and cross browser compatibility is ignored, it won’t matter what the rendering engine is- WebKit OR IE, code won’t be “standards compliant”.

    With the rising additions of vendor specific properties to WebKit, not very different from IE’s ActiveX “extensions”, such as the recently much talked about “CSS Animation”… dare I say it, will Safari turn out to be the next IE? Not that I’m opposed to it, I’d personally like to see Firefox clean up its act, maybe finally realizing how much bloat XUL is and such?

    I almost feel sorry for Opera.

  9. fog city dave

    See now, Om, you’re doing it again… WebKit hasn’t been “supported extensively” by Apple… WebKit came out of Apple. Period. WebKit was released by Apple as open source at WWDC 2005.

    Since so many have ridiculed Apple’s efforts with WebKit and Safari for years, now that the platform is taking root in a big way, it’s only fair for you to give credit where credit is due.

  10. fog city dave

    It certainly does read as if you worked very diligently not to link WebKit with Apple. Was this some intentional sleight, or are you really unaware of WebKit’s Apple origins?

  11. This has to be hugely significant for interface developers.

    Cross-browser compatibility is a massive pain when attempting a consistent interface appearance. But if the iPhone and Android are using the same rendering engine, i.e. Webkit, it could potentially lead to a Web which is only rendered by a single engine. No more IE conditional comments or hasLayout! Happy days!

  12. …. and also let’s not forget that Adobe adopted WebKit as the rendering core for their cross platform AIR (Adobe Interactive Runtime) environment. WebKit is on the rise everywhere…

  13. reinharden

    It seems like it’d be worth mentioning in there somewhere that WebKit began life as an Apple open-source project (even though it was based upon work done in KHTML).

    I’ll grant that the info is somewhat well-hidden if you don’t already know it.

    But there’s a bit of a difference between Apple has devoted a lot of resources to WebKit and Apple created WebKit. And I’d argue that the latter is clearly more accurate.