Just Fork It: Google and Opera Blink

Posted Thursday April 4, 2013 at 9:41:41 am in Technology

We have been down this path before. It seems that there is always a new browser war. It started off with Internet Explorer and Netscape, evolved into Internet Explorer and Mozilla, and now it is a muddled mess of desktop, smartphone, and everything in between. But do not for a second blink (pun intended) or you might forget that the desktop is still in the middle of a browser war.

I know, you're probably chomping at the bit to bring up the wars before Internet Explorer and Netscape. But those are largely regarded as being undercards to the heavyweight bouts that were between the Internet Explorer and Netscape teams. But that's all ancient history. Of course, by ancient history I mean about 18 years ago. But that's ancient history when it comes to technology.

But I want to stop everyone for a second. The real renaissance of web development really came about in the mid to upper 2000's when companies really started spending time developing for the mobile web. With the release of the iPhone in 2007, it really started to take off. I want to focus for a moment on the period of time between 1995 and pre-iPhone for a second. I'm not the biggest fan of "usage share" metrics, but over time they can show a trend:

2009 - 2013 StatCounter Usage Share of Web Browsers


Look above and you'll see that mobile was pretty much flat from 2009 to early 2011. So, to make things simpler I want to ignore mobile web browsers...as that's a horse of a different colour.

Anyways, In that ~12 year period from 1995 to 2007, the following browsers were the most popular (by marketshare, not usage...)

  • Netscpae 
  • Internet Explorer
  • Firefox
  • Chrome
  • Safari
  • Opera

There were a few others tangled in there, but those are largely the most popular. 

As a web developer, there was a time (believe it or not) where companies would only develop against Internet Explorer. They didn't care about Firefox, Opera, etc. Times have changed, and now we're at a time where cross platform (web) development isn't just a nice to have it's now a must have. It's important to note, because as consumers get more and more choices, the number of platforms that developers have to support goes up. It's of course a business decision to determine what browser set to support, but it's a reality of the industry.

I bring this up because yesterday (April 3rd, 2013) Google forked WebKit to create a new rendering engine called Blink. You may wonder why this is a big deal. Ok, I'll explain.

The current most popular set of desktop browsers are the following:

  • Internet Explorer (6, 7, 8, 9 and 10). I will say IE6 is pretty much dead.
  • Firefox
  • Chrome
  • Safari
  • Opera (sort of)

To see a trend, you can check out NetMarketshare. Here's the trendline I'm using: Desktop Top Browser Share Trend.

What you'll see is the following breakdown:

  • Internet Explorer - 55.83%
  • Firefox - 20.21%
  • Chrome - 16.45%
  • Safari - 5.31%
  • Opera - 1.74%
  • Other - 0.46%

Aside from having different user interfaces with varying functionality sets, there is really one key differentiator from the top browsers that web developers care about: the rendering engine. A lot of sites will use the term "layout engine" interchangeably with render engine, so just keep that in mind. And I'll use that as well.

So, even though there are 5 top browsers, there really were only 3 different layout engines used across them. There were 4 up until February 2013, when Opera announced that it will embrace WebKit as its layout engine and V8 as its JavaScript engine. In case you are curious, Opera used an engine called Presto prior to switching to WebKit.

Here's the breakdown of the popular browsers and their layout engines:

What you'll see above is that with Google forking WebKit and creating the Blink layout engine and using it in Chrome as well as Opera using it in their browser, that there are now going to be 4 layout engines that will have to be supported by web developers: Trident, Gecko, Blink, and WebKit. And that's just the layout engine. From a browser perspective, web developers will now be supporting: IE, Firefox, Chrome (WebKit), Chrome (Blink), Safari, and Opera.

This shouldn't have an immediate effect right now, but Google forking WebKit to create its own layout engine is a big deal for Google. It also means eventually it will be a big deal for web developers. Prior to this announcement, testing Chrome, Safari, and Opera was largely a trivial process. They all used the same layout engine, and aside from minor intricacies across operating systems and browser versions, it was a relatively painless process (compared to IE, Firefox, etc.).

But this announcement will add additional overhead to web development companies. We can argue until the cows come home the pros and cons for Google and Opera, but since I work for neither of those companies....the impact will eventually be on the web development community. And certainly the extent of that overhead remains to be seen. I can just picture the functionality comparison charts expanding as I type this....

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view