Laying out the future

Browser wars to be shaken up by Blink and Servo

Elliot Bentley
chrome-webkit-fork1

As Chrome and Opera move to new WebKit fork, next wave of browser innovation may be in under-the-hood rendering engines.

Google is
to fork
the WebKit rendering engine
, it was announced yesterday. The
new fork will be called Blink, and will be used by both Chrome and
Opera in a major shake-up to the browser market.

WebKit is the open-source technology used to interpret
HTML and CSS, currently used by Chrome, Safari and the stock
Android browser. Originally a fork of KHTML, it was developed in
secret by Apple for their flagship Safari browser, and later
open-sourced in 2005. According to StatCounter,
WebKit now powers over 45% of the global browser market.

When Google Chrome adopts Blink, it should make little
short-term difference to the way it displayed web pages. However,
web developers may be relieved to hear that Blink will phase out
the practice of CSS vendor prefixes, which seen by many as
inconvenient and harmful to web standards
.

Blink will also be adopted by
Opera
, who just two months ago announced a
switch from their own Presto engine
to Chrome’s branch of
WebKit. The company said at the time that it would allow a greater
focus on the niche browser’s UI, although some commenters expressed
fears that it might lead to a browser “monoculture”.

Chrome (and, soon, Opera) uses a different
multi-process architecture
to most other WebKit-based browsers,
and this complexity has “slowed down the collective pace of
innovation”, said Google engineer Adam Barth.

In the short-term, this split will allow 4.5 million
lines of code to be pruned from WebKit’s codebase.
According to an FAQ
it should provide a long-term “opportunity
to do open-ended investigations into other performance improvement
strategies” and “do for networking, rendering and layout what V8
did for JavaScript”.

Mozilla serves up a new engine

Just a few hours before the unveiling of Blink,

Mozilla announced
that Samsung will be helping it port its own
experimental “Next-Generation” browser engine, Servo, to Android. Servo is
written in Rust and is
designed “to take advantage of tomorrow’s faster, multi-core,
heterogeneous computing architectures”.

Despite radical changes to its UI and JavaScript
engine, Firefox is still powered by the Gecko engine, which dates
back to Netscape Navigator. However, integration of Servo into
Firefox is likely some time away.

After several years of focusing on UI and JavaScript
engines, the next wave of innovation in the browser race appears to
be in the rendering engines themselves. For web developers, this
competition should hopefully mean faster and more accurate support
for web standards.

Blink’s emergence is far from the end for WebKit,
which still powers Safari on OS X and every iOS device. Now that
Chrome support is no longer necessary, discussion on the WebKit
mailing list has already turned to the subject of
streamlining its codebase
.

Fork image by Cookieater2009.

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