Blink, WebKit, Google, Chrome, Mozilla, Servo; oh the Insanity! … right?

Posted: April 04, 2013 Comments

This week just got really interesting. It seems that just yesterday we were terrified of browser monoculture, but today we’re fearful of too much fragmentation. “But this is different” seems to be the general response at this point, but if we take a step back and look at things a bit more realistically, I think we can all appreciate what’s going on here.

A much simplified backstory

The headline that made waves yesterday was that of Google’s Chromium project splitting away from WebKit and forking what is to be called Blink. There are a number of posted reasons for doing so, and it’s up to each of us to determine the honesty and reality of each. Once we’re done being experts on the subject, we can take a step back and think about the overall impact here.

The overarching, politics-aside take home message here boils down to performance in my opinion. Google isn’t happy with a number of factors having to do precisely with significant portions of the WebKit project being directly tied to OS X and/or iOS. This is understandable. If figures from the announcement posts are correct, removal of 7 build systems, 7,000 files, and 4.5 million lines of code is something any programmer would backflip over.

We can’t forget how tightly related this announcement is to that of Opera just a few short weeks ago; they’re using Blink too. They just couldn’t talk about it during their announcement.

New rendering engines? What year is it?

It seems crazy that these headlines have cropped up in 2013 but it doesn’t take long to look at the Web of today and compare it to the environment in which these rendering engines were born. It’s an immensely different landscape now. I don’t think we can assume the original architectures put in place were designed to support the utter nuttiness we’re building each and every day. We want things to keep getting better and better, which sometimes involves significant change.

I find it particularly interesting that alongside Opera’s announcement which ties so heavily into Chromium’s, Mozilla also announced a new project in partnership with Samsung. The Servo browser engine is something we should take note of as well. As per their announcement post:

Servo is an attempt to rebuild the Web browser from the ground up on modern hardware, rethinking old assumptions along the way. This means addressing the causes of security vulnerabilities while designing a platform that can fully utilize the performance of tomorrow’s massively parallel hardware to enable new and richer experiences on the Web. To those ends, Servo is written in Rust, a new, safe systems language developed by Mozilla along with a growing community of enthusiasts.

Doesn’t that sound awesome? To be able to start from scratch after years with an existing codebase is the thing programmer dreams are made of. Mozilla and Samsung are taking that on. I think we (myself included) need to step outside our WebKit-centered bubble and take a look at the overarching situation here.

Is this the catalyst we need right now?

I can’t help but be super psyched about this announcement. While a big, short-sighted part of me finds the whole Google aspect unsettling, I think I stand behind what positive byproducts of these changes. We can’t deny Apple’s direct influence on the WebKit project, and we can’t look past the changes that will happen with that project once the Google contributions cease. We need to keep in mind though that it might be inspirational for both projects which in turn benefits the world at large.

We think the Web is everywhere now, but I don’t think we really understand what that means quite yet. Not until things like this happen, when truly modern browsers are built focusing on the modern needs of cross-platform. It’s not just cross-platform in the sense of supporting three operating systems anymore, it’s far beyond that. New browsers need not only to be cross-platform, but cross-operating-system, cross-device, cross-architecture, and quite generally cross-everything.

There are some fantastic reaction pieces that have been published by people who have had a lot more time to think about this, and they’re worth the quick reads to balance out our pitchfork-wielding, knee-jerk reactions:

I guess my point in this uncharacteristic type of opinion piece is that I feel we’re being a bit quick to discount this move as purely political. Sure there are ugly pieces to it, but we need to take an accurate account of any real damage it might do versus our distaste for the company’s inspiration behind it. If you’re fully convinced Google is entirely evil, there’s much else to choose from.

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