A big part of Steve Jobs magical mobile revolution has been the advent of the App, which greatly simplifies using a small mobile-device screen. As popular as iPhone Apps have been, though, iPhone’s Safari browser has also been a great success, showing the practicality of using a Web browser on a small screen.

Safari has shined even more on the larger-screened iPad. With its interface being so similar to the iPhone, it seemed when it first came out that Apps would play the same role on the iPad as on the iPhone. But with its larger screen, people quickly realized that the Safari browser does a fine job in presenting information, and that separate Apps are not nearly as important as on the iPhone. And of course the Safari browser has the great advantage that it lives on The Web.

So the trend, going from iPhone to iPad, is the growing importance of Safari on Apple devices. But this goes well beyond Apple, because Safari is just one of the large class of “WebKit” browsers. I became aware of the importance of this with news in the last month that the Kindle and the Blackberry are both getting WebKit browsers (Thanks to Mike Cane for giving a shout about the significance of this).

So, what’s a WebKit browser? WebKit is the “layout engine” for Safari, Google Chrome, and almost all mobile browsers (Android, Blackberry, Kindle et al). It’s especially good for mobile browsers because of its nimble code and advanced HTML capabilities. And WebKit is open-source, which is why it’s being used on such a wide range of platforms, beyond Apple.

Learning about WebKit has given me a whole new way of seeing the mobile Web world — The varied and interesting implications are many …

  • The iPad’s big splash – Desktop computing is fading fast, and mobile is booming. Until the iPad came out in April, “mobile” meant cellphones and other hand-held devices. Now with the iPad, the definition becomes fuzzy, and will get fuzzier, with smaller versions of the iPad rumored to be in the offing, and Android tablets with a variety of screen sizes certain to come out soon. The whole mobile tribe, from cellphones on up, are certain to have WebKit browsers.
  • Apple’s influence spreads – The first implementation of WebKit on a widely-used browser was when Apple developed Safari and made WebKit as a “fork,” or variation, of the existing Unix rendering engine KHTML. Although Apple made WebKit open-source, and usable by anyone, it’s come to be strongly identified with Apple. So isn’t it interesting that now WebKit, which is widely thought of as an Apple standard, is being used in the browsers of Google and Amazon — Is there any precedent for that? For anything that’s Apple-flavored being adopted by Google and Amazon, which may be Apple’s two biggest competitors in the near future?
  • Apple’s Unix roots are deep, going back to Unix based Mac OS X. WebKit deepens these roots, having been developed by Apple from the Unix KHTML layout engine.
  • WebKit & eBooksWebKit is used for many eReaders, because they have so much in common with web browser technologies, so it will become increasingly important for libraries as the use of eBooks grows.
  • Firefox is fading – Instead of WebKit, Firefox is built on the Gecko layout engine, which was designed for the bulky Windows environment, and it shows its age on mobile systems with more compact code.
  • The growing irrelevance of Microsoft – With very little mobile or tablet presence, their claims to be embracing cloud computing (which is closely connected to mobile computing) seem doubtful — Especially since none of their current or planned browsers are WebKit-based.

I’m often surprised in reading commentaries about the iPad and its competitors that WebKit isn’t mentioned — John Martellaro touched upon the sense I have of “seeing the leaves but missing the branches” in a recent such commentary — He talks about “the advanced technologies that Apple has been nursing along for a decade (unnoticed)” [boldface added] — YES! Exactly! — People see the effects of Apple magic but don’t notice the things that create the magic (Martellaro himself doesn’t mention WebKit!).

So for me, seeing things through the lens of WebKit has been like “pulling back the curtain” on current developments and power struggles in the Web world — In reading anything about competition among Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and various eBook competitors, it’s invaluable to think about how WebKit affects things. I think it’s likely that as things progress (and especially when Android tablets start coming out in the next few months), WebKit awareness will certainly grow fast.

I use a Windows desktop at work and a Mac desktop at home. I’ve been a confirmed FireFox user on both of them for several years. But in doing research for this article, I’ve switched to WebKit browsers — Safari on the Mac and Google Chrome on Windows. I like both of them a lot, especially Chrome — I’ll certainly be staying with it.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

2 thoughts on “The Mobile Revolution & the WebKit Revolution

  1. Interesting article, but personally, I hope that things aren’t actually going the way you imply, where the whole world is switching over to Webkit. That could get a bit dangerous with vendor-lock-in, and we’ll have these terrible problems like we did in the early days of the Internet. I do hope that mobile browsers do something to further the adoption of open standards so that other browser engines will work equally as well, and avoid the need for flash.

    You did neglect to mention something pretty significant – Opera mobile browsers (http://www.opera.com/mobile ) (Opera Mobile and Opera Mini) have the largest market share in the world — this is especially important for developing nations and the like. Of course, even the iPhone and iPad can run Opera Mini now as an alternative, which is great for situations when Safari is too slow or otherwise fails.

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