We've come a long way from the epic battle between Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape. Internet Explorer won that web-browser war, of course, but the victory was short lived. Soon we had Apple's Safari, then Mozilla's Firefox, and Google's Chrome browser, plus a handful of specialty and second-tier entrants like Opera, iCab, RockMelt, and KidZui.
Nearly all modern web browsers are based on one of three so-called rendering engines — the underlying architecture that turns a website's code (HTML, etc.) and formatting instructions (CSS) into what you see on the screen. IE uses Trident, Firefox uses Gecko, and Safari, Opera, and Chrome — plus most mobile browsers — use some form of WebKit, an open-source engine developed by Apple. So it's pretty big news that Google is ditching WebKit to develop its own engine, called Blink.
The new rendering engine will start showing up in experimental versions of Chrome this week, then replace WebKit when the testing it done, probably in a few months. Opera says it will switch to Blink, too. So, what does this mean for Chrome users, and web browsing in general? Here are four possibilities:
1. Google promises a faster, leaner Chrome — and Safari
"For web users and web developers, there won't be any immediate differences" between the WebKit version of Chrome/Opera and the Blink version, says Peter Bright at Ars Technica. Blink is a branch of WebKit, and the first thing Google promises to do is strip out 7,000 files, or 4.5 million lines of code, that it says are mainly there for Safari. Google says this leaner engine, plus some other under-the-hood changes, will make for a faster browsing experience.
What you won't read enough about in the inevitably terrible coverage of this news is that "going faster matters," says Chrome developer Alex Russell at Infrequently Noted. Lots of positive changes will come from splitting off from WebKit, "but the most important thing is that we'll all be going faster," both people using Chrome to surf the web and Chrome developers now able improve the browser at a faster pace.
Yes, Blink should make Google and Opera faster, says Stephen Shankland at CNET, but Google insists that the switch "will technologically liberate both Chrome and Safari," benefiting both browsers. "We're confident this will allow us to move faster and allow the rest of the WebKit community to move faster, which ultimately will allow the Web to move faster," says Linus Upson, the Google VP in charge of Chrome.
2. Web browsing could be more stable
Despite the external similarities between Blink and WebKit, Google's excising of 4.5 million lines of code should lead to "more stability and fewer bugs," says Chrome software engineer Adam Barth. And Google will turn Blink into its own thing soon enough, says Dieter Bohn at The Verge. "We'll need to wait and see what innovations Google is going to build into Blink and Chrome," of course.
One hopeful sign on the Google's site describing Blink mentioned "out-of-process iframes," which break up web page rendering into smaller, discrete process. That could allow web apps to act more like native apps and, theoretically, mean that when something within the web page dies (like Flash, for example), it might not bring down the whole page. [The Verge]
3. Another rendering engine means more innovation
The mass migration to WebKit, especially on mobile devices, "has triggered some angst and teeth-gnashing," says CNET's Shankland. Then, in February, "when Opera threw in its lot with WebKit, more people fretted at the loss of an independent browser engine." Having Blink in the mix "means that some of that independence is returning."
Leaving the WebKit development community "was not an easy decision," says Chrome's Adam Barth. "Nevertheless, we believe that having multiple rendering engines — similar to having multiple browsers — will spur innovation and over time improve the health of the entire open web ecosystem." That's probably true for Blink-based browsers, says Sean Michael Kerner at Internet News. "But what about security for WebKit?"
Google has been an amazing steward of WebKit security, fixing more flaws than anyone else in recent years. With the shift to Blink, I suspect that flow will slow down, as architectural changes take hold. Google plans on improving memory hardening in Blink and will be making some memory safety changes. This is a good thing for Blink, but not so good for Apple Safari.... It will be interesting to see what happens to WebKit in the year ahead and whether it continues to grow on its own, or if developers and browser vendors instead all choose to embrace a new model. [Internet News]
4. This better positions Google for the post-PC world
"Having multiple rendering engines will no doubt lead to more innovation," says Adrian Kingsley-Hughes at ZDNet. But "The reason Google wants Blink is down to one thing — the post-PC era." Having 4.5 million lines of "dead wood... buried in the codebase might be fine on desktop and notebook systems with a beefy processor and bags of RAM" but, "on mobile systems with limited processing power, storage, RAM, and power, a more focused, streamlined rendering engine would be better for all."
"As web apps have become more sophisticated and the internet has become a foundation for so much work, entertainment, communication, and learning, web engines have risen commensurately in importance," says CNET's Shankland. Browsers are "now effectively operating systems unto themselves," explicitly so in the case of Google's Chrome OS. Given the digital world we now live in, says ZDNet's Kingsley-Hughes, "a faster, more efficient, safer browser is something that would be welcomed by many."