Google Chromium project leaves WebKit to work with Blink browser engine

When Opera announced in February that it would switch to the WebKit browser engine, the same basic technology that powers Chrome and Safari, critics wondered if this was a bad move for the open Web.

The worry was that browser vendors were putting too much power in the hands of one rendering engine. Many, no doubt, were recalling the years when Internet Explorer dominated browser usage requiring Web developers to cater to IE's peculiarities.

Fears of a so-called WebKit monoculture may be over now that the Chromium Project is splitting with WebKit, an open source project created by Apple in 2001. Google will instead work on its own rendering engine called Blink, taking the new engine’s initial codebase from WebKit, a practice called forking. Chromium is the Google-led open-source browser project that supplies the code for the company's Chrome Web browser.

With the addition of Blink, there are now four major Web engines including WebKit, Mozilla's Gecko engine powering Firefox, and Microsoft's Trident for Internet Explorer.

Why the change?

"[WebKit was] the obvious choice for Chromium's rendering engine back when we started," Google's Chromium Project said in a blog post Wednesday. "However, Chromium uses a different multi-process architecture than other WebKit-based browsers, and supporting multiple architectures over the years has led to increasing complexity for both the WebKit and Chromium projects."

Google says that at first, there will be little difference in how Blink works as the first round of changes to the new engine will be largely architectural. Right from the start, Blink will have a smaller codebase as it eliminates from its WebKit source about 7,000 files and 4.5 million lines of code. A smaller codebase could translate into smaller download packages for new browser installations and perhaps faster start-up times for browsers.

Chromium logo

Chrome and Chromium won't be the only browsers using Blink. Opera confirmed to PCWorld that it will also follow Chromium into the Blink project. When Opera announced it was going WebKit in February, the company said it would base its new browser on elements from Chromium, so the switch to Blink makes sense.

Introducing a new rendering engine could either be a blessing or a boon for users and developers. Catering to multiple rendering engines can put a heavy burden on Web coders who need to make sure their sites work no matter if someone is viewing their site in Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, or Safari. Even when those browsers are supposed to respect the same Web standards, minor differences in each browser can require code tweaks by developers to keep their sites working.

Others, however, feared a singular Web culture ruled by the technological capacities and limitations of WebKit. There’s little doubt that WebKit is currently a dominant factor in Web development, especially when it comes to optimizing websites for mobile devices.

Akamai
Akamai’s average usage for mobile browsers between March 3 and April 2, 2013

Apple's Safari for iOS and Google's Android browsers rely on WebKit and account for more than 90 percent of the mobile browser market worldwide, according to stats from Internet backbone company Akamai Technologies. WebKit's mobile dominance even prompted Microsoft to write a blog post with guidelines on how to tweak a WebKit-optimized site to work with Internet Explorer 10 for Windows Phone 8.

Google says it is keenly aware that introducing a new rendering engine has the potential to break Web compatibility, but the company argues that multiple rendering engines will "spur innovation and over time improve the health of the entire open web ecosystem."

So when will we see the first version of Chrome fully powered by Blink? Google hasn’t said yet, and Opera said it cannot comment on its roadmap plans. Opera released its first beta version of Opera based on WebKit earlier in March.

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