“The browser platform wars are over. WebKit won. Gecko & IE lost” – Ian McKellar

As I wrote recently, one of the important effects of the iPad is that it’s shown that the WebKit browser platform is important beyond the world of mobile devices, with its use on Safari for iPad and also for Google Chrome. “WebKit” will likely soon become part of vocabulary of the wide Web-using world. Now, though, it’s talked about mainly by geekish tech people, so it’s hard to sift out non-geek talk about it that can inform the rest of us. The article by Gecko and WebKit developer Ian McKellar (@ian) that I’m excerpting below does a good job of this. McKellar states strongly his view that the programming environment of Mozilla/Firefox is outmoded and that the browsers of the future will be WebKit-based.

About the sub-title above: “The browser platform wars are over …” — This is from a tweet by McKellar, in response to my tweeting a link to his article. Although his tweet includes IE (Internet Explorer), his article is only on WebKit and Mozilla.

Gecko (in McKellar’s quote) is the browser platform for Firefox. Mozilla (in the excerpting below) is closely associated with Mozilla Firefox.

Excerpts from McKellar’s article [boldface added]:

In my experience (8 years building Mozilla based products and playing with WebKit since 2003) there are a few clear technical and social differences that can make WebKit a more attractive platform for developers than Mozilla.

The scale and complexity of the Mozilla codebase is daunting. Mozilla advocates will say that that’s because Mozilla provides more functionality, but the reality is that even if you don’t want all that functionality you still have to dig through and around it to get your work done. Much of the Mozilla platform is poorly documented, poorly understood and incomplete … while WebKit is smaller, simpler and newer.

The scale of the Mozilla organization is also daunting. Mozilla’s web presence is vast and is filled with inaccurate, outdated content. Their goals are vague and mostly irrelevant to developers. By contrast WebKit’s web site is simple and straight-forward.

Perhaps I’m short-sighted, but I don’t see a clear path forward for Mozilla in competing with WebKit as a platform for web content display. The long history of Mozilla have left them with a large, complicated codebase that’s not getting smaller. The rapid growth and defensive attitude of the organization (probably brought on by the Netscape / IE wars) has left it without a culture that welcomes friendly competition. … I’m just glad we have an alternative web content platform.

So, where to to from here? As iPad-like tablet devices nudge into the world of desktop computing, it seems likely that WebKit browsers are the future. Though FireFox and Internet Explorer will probably continue to dominate the desktop for some time, the WebKit future is available now on the desktop in Google Chrome — I’ve started using it regularly, and I find it superior to FireFox in many ways. So consider giving it a try.

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

“The browser platform wars are over. WebKit won. Gecko & IE lost”

When I wrote on the WebKit Revolution in August, I didn’t find the good graphic below, I think because of the way it was titled and placed in excellent articles by Jason Grigsby (@grigs). So, thanks, Jason, and I hope you don’t mind that I’ve tweeked the text accompanying the pie graph, to show more clearly the platforms involved.

The graphic is a bit dated, since it doesn’t include the iPad, and no doubt a more current version would show a larger share for iPhone and Android. Also, the recent introductions of a WebKit browser on the Kindle 3 would make the WebKit dominance even more noteworthy. But the graphic still does a good job of showing the strength of WebKit browsers on mobile devices. Note >> All the pieces of the pie in shades of BLUE (all but Windows/Others) are based on WebKit.

[Text: 2009 Smartphone Market Share (Gartner). Phones currently shipping or projected to ship using WebKit ... Symbian (Nokia) 47%, Blackberry 20%, iPhone (Safari) 14%, Android 4%, WebOS (Palm) 1%, Windows/Others 14%]

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

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