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2/15/2013
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Opera's WebKit Move Isolates Mozilla

Opera makes its browser more broadly appealing but diminishes diversity of the Web browser technology stack.

Opera Software has decided to perform technology transplants on its Web browser by replacing the company's internally developed Carakan Javascript engine and Presto rendering engine with open source projects V8 and WebKit respectively.

Opera justified the move as a way to focus on innovation, to strengthen Web standards and to avoid duplicating technology that has already been implemented in WebKit. The company insisted the change shouldn't affect the day-to-day work of Web developers, but its embrace of WebKit clearly alters the balance of power in the Web ecosystem in a way that marginalizes Mozilla.

WebKit, initially developed by Apple and now a well-regarded open source project, is the only rendering engine that Apple supports in its iOS mobile operating system. As such, browser companies must build their mobile browsers using WebKit if they want their software to be available to users of iOS devices.

There's reason to want that: According to recent Akamai data, iOS devices account for over 60% of mobile browsing.

[ Can Apple avoid the smartwatch flops of the past? Read Apple iWatch Vs. Smartwatches Past And Present. ]

Though Opera managed to avoid Apple's WebKit requirement by having its Opera Mini browser process Web pages through a backend service, the company clearly wants to participate in the important iOS market with a full-fledged browser, even if Apple's security rules ensure that mobile Safari runs Javascript faster than any third-party browser on iOS devices.

While Opera's technological transition may make financial sense for a commercial company, it further isolates Mozilla, which has been working hard to demonstrate that it has relevance beyond the desktop. In a blog post on Thursday, Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich explained why Mozilla continues to be committed to developing its own Web technology foundation for its Firefox browser, based on its Gecko Web rendering engine and SpiderMonkey Javascript engine.

"Mozilla is not Opera," Eich said. "If we were a more conventional business, without enough desktop browser-market share, we would probably have to do what Opera has done. But we're not just a business, and our desktop share seems to be holding or possibly rising -- due in part to the short-term wins we have been able to build on Gecko."

The issue is partly that Mozilla would be too far behind in the browser market if it jettisoned Gecko for WebKit, because doing so would break XUL, the XML-based markup language Mozilla uses for interface elements in Firefox and add-ons. As Eich puts it, the cost of switching from Gecko to WebKit would be "exorbitant."

With Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome and now Opera on WebKit, Web designers will have even more of an incentive to make sure their code looks good in WebKit. And they may be tempted to pay less attention to how their code looks in Firefox or Internet Explorer (which relies on Microsoft's Trident rendering engine) and to spend more time using WebKit-specific markup tags.

But even if Web designers test websites with an eye toward formal standards rather than the de facto standard that WebKit has become, diminished browser diversity makes compliance with Web specifications less relevant than performance under the dominant rendering engine. What remains to be seen is whether the drift toward WebKit diminishes Mozilla's ability to shape the development of future Web technology.

Eich and others, such as former Mozilla CEO John Lilly, see the trend toward technological monoculture a potential problem.

"...[W]e've never been served well by monocultures -- we know this for sure," Lilly observed in a blog post. "I worry that in our desire for clearer definition, easier standards, faster progress, we're forgetting that we know this."

Ironically, Mozilla's existence both illustrates the risk of monoculture and suggests how it can be overcome: Microsoft's disinterest in browser innovation in the 1990s left an opening for Mozilla to create Firefox, which helped bring Google to power and then left Mozilla scrambling to adapt to the mobile era.

The title of Eich's post, "Why Mozilla Matters," shows what Mozilla fears, or at least what the company fears has become the accepted wisdom: that Mozilla matters less and less.

There's some truth to that: Mozilla doesn't matter on iOS because Firefox isn't available on iOS devices. To matter more, it will have to convince people of the virtues of its new mobile operating system, Firefox OS and of the value of the open Web app ecosystem it has been building.

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