Opera and WebKit: a personal perspective

I expect by now you’ve heard that Opera (my employer for the last four and half years) has announced that its browsers will, in future, use the WebKit rendering engine. I wrote the announcement, and what follows here is my personal take on it. It’s on my personal blog precisely because it does not reflect the opinion of my employer, wife, kids or hamster.

Opera’s Presto engine was a means to an end; a means for a small, European browser company to challenge the dominance of companies who, at that time, hoped to “win” the web through embracing, extending and extinguishing web standards.

Presto showed that it was possible to make a better browser while supporting standards. Other vendors have followed this path; the world has changed.

These days, web standards aren’t a differentiator between browsers. Excellent standards support is a given in modern browsers. Attempting to compete on standards support is like opening a restaurant and putting a sign in the window saying “All our chefs wash their hands before handling food”.

Rendering engines are now highly interoperable – largely due to the progress commonly known as “HTML5”, begun by Opera in 2004, then joined by Mozilla, in order to protect the web from proprietary platforms, keep it open and promote interoperability.

It seems to me that WebKit simply isn’t the same as the competitors against which we fought, and its level of standards support and pace of development match those that Opera aspires to.

It isn’t run by a single organisation; a report on WebKit this month says “it is also noteworthy how the diversity of the project is increasing, with new players starting to show a significant activity.”

It therefore seems silly to compete against it. Instead, we’ll join and use our experience and resources to improve it further.

Although a small organisation, we’ve always played an active role in developing standards – CSS, Media Queries, HTML5, native video being high-profile examples. This is important to me; I’ve worked in my own small way for 10 years now to help protect and advance the web and want to work for an organisation that does too. So when it was announced internally that we would switch to WebKit, I worried that standards work might stop.

I asked the CEO and Engineering lead at an all-hands meeting if we will continue that work. They replied that we absolutely will continue to work on standards, and we’ll submit changes to advance WebKit. Our CTO, Hakon Wium Lie confirmed it by demonstrating internal WebKit builds that have some interesting new standards support. Today we contributed a small, symbolic patch that can bring all WebKit browsers’ CSS multi-column support to Presto’s level.

One rendering engine will go. Some lament that. Some of those who lament it seemed never to test in it, excluded it from their demos, or actively blocked it.

I’m both English and a man. That means I have no emotional life at all (so consider this carte blanche to be incredibly rude to me in the comments) but even with those two significant handicaps, I’ve found myself with a pang of regret that the Presto rendering engine will disappear. I’ve experienced that feeling before – eighteen months ago when having a final walk around the house that had been my family’s home for a decade, before getting into the car and following the removal van to the new home that we’d dreamed about.

Of course, a browser is much more than a rendering engine. Very few consumers of the web choose a browser because of its rendering engine – they just expect it to work. And if it doesn’t work as well as native apps, they’ll choose native apps.

Opera has 300 million active users —almost a third of a *billion* people— many of whom would otherwise have no access to the web. For many users around the world, a browser is more than a tool to browse the web. Sometimes it’s a school when you can afford none, sometimes it’s the only line to an outside world shut off by an oppressive regime.

The web needs to win. Browsers are highly interoperable, because all vendors know that if they’re not, they risk being overtaken by proprietary platforms. It used to be Flash and Silverlight that threatened the web. Today’s threats are proprietary app platforms and locked-in “eco-systems”. Tomorrow, new threats will rise.

Developers who care about the web will code to the standards, test across browsers and block none. We all want the same: we want the web platform to grow, to remain open, to become ubiquitous by being the no-brainer development platform of choice for all.

62 Responses to “ Opera and WebKit: a personal perspective ”

Comment by Rudolf

It is a lie that Opera just changes rendering engine from presto to webkit. Opera will use Chromium. In fact it will be Chromium itself, not Opera. All key features of Opera will be killed. Such as:
1. Deep customization
2. View cached images only
3. Fit to width
4. Horizontal scroll by mouse wheel
5. Fast back in history
And more.
We don’t need yet another Chromium browser with changed icon!

Comment by Questo

If #51 is true (which I will thouroughly test before “updating” my production installs), then 12.14 will be the last Opera I have used until the original project actually goes open source. Otherwise I might not bother forking my very own chromium engine and building my very own browser and, while that will take time, sticking to old Opera installs as long as possible.

Comment by sigh

This “NNM” character doesn’t seem to get it:

Seriously, 300 million? I think that number is fake. No one uses it voluntarily. Most Opera users had it pre-installed and never knew they could change it. That’s most Opera users grabbed by bloatware & crapware practices…

No, the vast majority of those 300 million users are people who installed it themselves. Opera Mini, Opera Mobile or Opera on a PC that they downloaded and installed manually.

No serious business (massive corporations, industry,..) uses it as their browser.

Except mobile operators across the globe? And of course Sony, Nintendo, etc.

Comment by sigh

I actually think Opera is the only desktop browser that hasn’t done any bundling. Chrome is bundled with Flash and other apps, and Firefox had some bundling deal a few years ago as well. IE is bundled with Windows.

Apparently Chrome, Firefox and IE are all bloatware and crapware. Says NNM.

Comment by sigh

@Rudolf

It is a lie that Opera just changes rendering engine from presto to webkit. Opera will use Chromium. In fact it will be Chromium itself, not Opera. We don’t need yet another Chromium browser with changed icon!

Your evidence that Opera will just used Chromium and not have its own UI is where exactly?

You do realize that just because two browsers use the same engine and framework doesn’t make them identical, right? Different WebKit browsers don’t even have an identical WebKit.

Comment by Sad

I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is required to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% certain. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks

Comment by Simon

As business consultant, Opera movement is the last and worst decision, the same than Nokia when Windows were chosen, both caused by a bad management for years and a desperate need to save someone’s position by cutting costs and leave the responsibility to others.
As a developer, there are only a few real Open Source projects, neither Webkit nor Chromium are included, they follow their main supporters agenda (Those who pays for full time developers as was seen with OpenOffice or MySQL), indeed, Opera has nothing to do against Google and Apple, specially when Google has been its main source of money (At least for Opera desktop).
Why using Opera if Chromium is made by Google?
Why keep using Opera when it lost all the nice features that it use to have (As it happened with Eudora)?
Why working with Opera if Google and Apple have a more reliable management and brand?
Norwegians once were good to make Internet technology but very bad to make business with it. Google won against AllTheWeb, now is the same with Opera. In other words US(2) – NO(0)

Comment by NN

@Simon

Comparing this to Nokia/Windows is a mistake. Nokia decided to drop their own market-leading platform (Symbian) for a failed platform which was being rejected by the market (Windows Phone).

Opera, on the other hand, dropped a platform that never was a market leader (Presto) for a platform that is (WebKit). The opposite of what Nokia did.

Why would cutting costs be a desperate move? Opera is doing well both financially and user growth wise. The move to WebKit was announced at the same time as the announcement that Opera had grown to 300 million active users.

The rest of your comment reveals an equally poor understanding of things.

As a business consultant, you evidently have a lot to learn. Please tell me the name of your company so that I am sure to avoid it in the future, as your understanding of the market seems poor indeed.

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