This week Google unexpectedly announced on the Chromium blog that it is forking WebKit and beginning work on a browser engine of its own: Blink. While it might not seem like a big deal at first blush, the reality is that Blink could shake up the web just as much as the release of Chrome did.
For quite a while now, Google has held the number one spot on the WebKit code commit “leaderboard.” Now that its engineers are working on Blink, that leaves WebKit with a greatly reduced number of active contributors. Because Blink is based on WebKit, it’s reasonable enough to think that some code sharing will be going on in the future. But Google’s focus is on Blink, and WebKit will have to adjust to life without its help.
Losing such a large team of coders could impact WebKit in many ways. It will, for example, make it more difficult for the team to maintain the pace of development that’s become the norm since Chrome arrived in 2008. That’s not to say WebKit won’t be able to keep up with Blink, but it’s certainly going to be very, very tough. Will the shift cause Safari for Mac OS and iOS to fall behind other browsers? It’s a distinct possibility, and no doubt one that Apple is going to do its best to prevent.
Web development will have to react
Apart from the obvious engine development issues, the arrival of Blink may also change the way people design and build websites. Because of the rapid rise of Chrome, iOS, and Android, WebKit became the engine of preference for many web developers. Rather than making sure web sites and apps were coded to standards and worked on all compatible browsers, WebKit became the “good enough” option in many cases. Why bother testing Gecko, Presto, or Trident if 90% of your users were running a WebKit browser anyway?
It’s a problem that’s epidemic on the mobile web. But with Blink entering the picture, things will start to change. You won’t notice anything overnight — Blink is being built from WebKit, and it’s going to take a while for Google to mold and shape it. Once Chrome is running a Blink engine that suits Google’s needs, however, the change will begin.
Sites will need to be as standards-compliant as possible if one of the most popular desktop and mobile browsers in the world is no longer running an engine that’s a carbon copy of WebKit. WebKit-specific CSS will hopefully become a thing of the past, as will other proprietary web code as hundreds of millions of users begin browsing the web with Blink.
Browser competition is a good thing
And just as open standards are good for the web, so is the existence of multiple browsing engines. Mozilla lamented the loss of Presto when Opera announced its shift to a Chromium core because it meant one more major browser was joining the WebKit camp — leaving Firefox and Internet Explorer as the only alternatives.
The introduction of Blink means there’s once again a fourth option. And this time, it’s a fourth option with a whole lot of clout. With all due respect to the pioneering folks at Opera, Google has perhaps more influence on the web than anyone else in 2013.
Opera was often overlooked by web developers in the past because of its relatively small market share. That led the Presto-powered browser to display broken websites to users and cost Opera developers countless hours coding site-specific fixes. With Opera’s wagon now hitched to Chromium, that’s no longer an option. Those sites have to work with Blink because its user base will be massive.
Sharing could lead to problems
There’s some concern that the common code base Blink and WebKit share could lead to some problems when it comes to recommending new standards. For the time being, it’s going to be much easier to make a proposed spec work in both Blink and WebKit than, say, Gecko. Mozilla, Microsoft, and other W3C members will do their best to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Ultimately, Blink should be a win for the web as a whole and for individual end users, too — even if they’re not using Chrome or Opera. The increased competition and sharper focus on standards should lead to a better browsing experience for everyone.