Laying out the future

Browser wars to be shaken up by Blink and Servo

Elliot Bentley

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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