Opera joins Chrome & Safari in using Webkit for Web-browsing

In a surprise move, the Opera Web browser is moving from using its Presto Web rendering engine to using the popular open-source Webkit engine.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Opera, a Web browser with a small, but loyal, core group of 300-million users, surprised everyone when they moved from its Presto Web rendering engine to the popular open-source Webkit engine. Webkit is best known for being Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari Web engine.

In a radical move, Opera is replacing its Web rendering heart, Presto, with Webkit.

Web engines are what take Web page content such as HTML files, and formatting instructions, for example Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and transform these into the page you see on your screen. They are a Web browser's heart. For Opera, this is no less than a heart transplant.

Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie explained that, "It makes more sense to have our experts working with the open-source communities to further improve WebKit and Chromium, rather than developing our own rendering engine further. Opera will contribute to the WebKit and Chromium projects, and we have already submitted our first set of patches: to improve multi-column layout." Lie added, "The WebKit engine is already very good, and we aim to take part in making it even better. It supports the standards we care about, and it has the performance we need."

To Opera's outside developers, Bruce Lawson, a lead Opera developer, said, "When we first began, back in 1995, we had to roll our own rendering engine in order to compete against the Netscape and Internet Explorer to drive Web standards, and thus the Web forward. When we started the spec that is now called HTML5,' our goal was a specification that would greatly enhance interoperability across the Web."

Lawson continued, "The WebKit project now has the kind of standards support that we could only dream of when our work began. Instead of tying up resources duplicating what's already implemented in WebKit, we can focus on innovation to make a better browser."

On a personal note, Lawson explained, "Opera’s Presto engine was a means to an end; a means for a small, European browser company to challenge the dominance of companies who, at that time, hoped to 'win' the web through embracing, extending and extinguishing web standards. Presto showed that it was possible to make a better browser while supporting standards. Other vendors have followed this path; the world has changed."

Another reason, unspoken by Opera's team, is that Opera's performance hasn't kept up with the other browsers. While Opera has been getting faster, it's been unable to keep up with IE, Firefox and Chrome.

Many Opera extension developers are not welcoming this change. John Resig, the Dean of Computer Science at Khan Academy, summarized these arguments as: A browser switching to WebKit will result in stagnation. This is helping to make WebKit a de facto standard, bugs-and-all. This will affect Opera’s ability to influence standards. And Opera switching to WebKit is a slippery slope. Resig dismissed these arguments as being largely irrelevant.

In particular, Resig noted that "WebKit has completely and unequivocally won mobile at this point. They are nearly the only rendering engine used on the vast majority of mobile browsers, including the soon-to-switch Opera Mini/Mobile browsers too. There is no reason to worry about a slippery slope, the slope has already been slid down. In order for any other browser to remain relevant in the world of mobile (which, you must admit, is quickly becoming the only world we live in) they must keep feature parity with WebKit."

Still for programmers, as Opera freely admits, there are some concerns. While Web developers won't have any worries at all—Webkit already being so popular--Opera is promising its Opera extension programmers that its team is "working on a conversion tool that will take existing OEX extensions and convert them into a format that can be used by Chromium-based Opera for computers. In addition, we'll provide conversion tutorials and documentation, and we'll provide assistance through our developer forums as well. In short, we stay totally committed to our enthusiastic community of extension developers and users, and we'll do our best to make the transition as smooth as possible."

End-users also won't need to worry about basic Web functionality. As the new Webkit-based versions of Opera start shipping, however, they will need to update their Opera extensions.

That said, users are not happy with this change. While some users have said such thing as "Great decision from the Opera team. Looking forward to seeing the first webkit-powered Opera browser!" on the Opera Web page. More often, people criticized the move with comments such as, "Opera stops competing and starts supporting the insane WebKit monoculture that is the cause of half of the compatibility problems we have" and "I love Opera because it ploughs its own furrow, and is not just another 'Clone' browser." And, perhaps the most telling comment: "Why would I continue using Opera, if it looks like any other browser and now also acts like any other browser?"

That's a good question and one that Opera, if it wants to hold on to its 300-million users, must answer.

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