The Amazing Rise of WebKit Mobile

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.

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