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Devs respond to Opera WebKit switch

Excitement over simpler testing tempered by question marks over Opera’s future

Opera has announced a “gradual transition” to the WebKit browser engine, in place of its own Presto.

In a press release, Opera CTO Hkon Wium Lie praised WebKit and said Opera aimed to make it even better. “It supports the standards we care about, and it has the performance we need," he claimed, adding it made more sense to have the company’s experts, “working with the open source communities to further improve WebKit and Chromium, rather than developing our own rendering engine further”. Wium Lie said the shift in focus would enable more Opera resources to be dedicated to innovation and feature development.

Writing for Opera Developer News, Opera web evangelist Bruce Lawson provided further insight, and said that, although Opera rolling its own engine was necessary in 1995, to compete against then-giants Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, and to drive forward web standards, WebKit now has the kind of standards support Opera could “only dream of” when its work began.

Speaking to .net, Lawson reiterated that the transition will not be immediate and that developers should continue working in a best-practice fashion: “They should continue to use the (very few) Opera vendor prefixes we didn't remove previously because Presto will be in the market for a while yet in TVs, car dashboards, and so on”.

A rendering engine is 'a commodity'

We asked Lawson if Opera’s decision means the company believes differentiation through a browser engine is wasted effort. He didn’t think that was the case but said it’s now more prudent to focus energies elsewhere: “For users, a rendering engine is a commodity. They just want it to work. Do the majority of consumers ask who manufactured the engine when they buy a car? No; they're concerned with how aerodynamic the chassis is, how comfortable it is to drive, and what labour-saving devices exist.”

He said the company still cared deeply about web standards and has already offered its first patch to WebKit, to bring CSS multi-column support across all WebKit browsers up to the level of Presto. However, the browser itself is known more for features like Speed Dial, tabbed browsing, mouse gestures and so the company wants to “continue innovating there, too, on what consumers see every day”.

Developers responded positively to the decision. Michele Bugliaro Goggia told .net this was “good news, in terms of testing,” and thought “the fewer engines we have around, the easier it will be for designers”.

Happy Cog founder Jeffrey Zeldman also praised the move: “Opera users should enjoy more compatibility; developers who do the right thing may rejoice at having a little less complexity in their testing and debugging regimes; and developers who ignored Opera will be less likely to hurt its many users”.

However, Zeldman added that developers shouldn’t use this as an excuse to be complacent: “We still have to author and code to standards, and we still have to test across browsers and devices. In that sense, nothing changes.”

Towards a WebKit monoculture

Another question prompted by Opera moving to WebKit is if this is a one-off event or part of a trend. “With three major browsers using the WebKit engine, this will put pressure on Mozilla to convert Firefox to use it as well or stand alone like Internet Explorer,” said digital consultant Michael Oglesby.

Andy Hume, frontend architect at The Guardian, had the same thought, and was concerned about the possible ramifications: “If there's a consolidation towards WebKit to the point where there is nothing else, then the core of developers that own that project basically own the web platform. If they don't bless a standard, it's dead. Yes, someone can come along and fork the project and create a new browser — but there's a large barrier to entry in getting it to a significant market.”

Currently, Hume said there’s a huge diversity in the technology emerging from different projects: CSS Grid Layout from Microsoft, CSS Regions from Adobe/Chrome, and open type font features which have been almost entirely driven by Mozilla. “People will stop building web applications and start building WebKit applications, just like they built IE6 applications back in the day. I see pain in our future,” he said.

Lawson, however, dismissed the notion Opera’s plans would result in a WebKit monoculture: “It's hard to claim a WebKit monoculture when IE's Trident and Mozilla's Gecko are going strong. It's also untrue that there is one monolithic WebKit; there are many. WebKit has many diverse and competing organisations working for it, too.”

Nonetheless, mobile expert Peter-Paul Koch said on his blog that Opera’s own press release points to this shift already happening, highlighting the section on consumers seeing better site compatibility with mobile-facing sites only tested on WebKit. “Note carefully what this means: we web developers haven’t been doing our jobs properly,” he complained. “We didn’t bother to test our mobile sites on Opera Mini, even though it’s roughly as large as Safari iOS and Android.”

Koch said Opera’s decision is therefore “our own fault”, and he too wondered how this would impact on Mozilla, legacy Opera support, Presto-specific benefits (such as JavaScript not blocking the UI thread), and Opera’s political power in the web standards community.

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