Browser Wars Redux: If You See a Fork in the Road, Take It
Last week, the groundwork was set for the next generation of web browsers. And while that might cause headaches for your developers in the short run, in the long term, it's probably a good thing.
If browser incompatibilities give you fits, your stomach was probably aching pretty heavily last Wednesday morning.
That’s because, in the span of just a few hours, the fairly stable state of web development got forked. Twice.
In what may be the biggest change in web development since Google Chrome launched in 2008, Google announced its plan to split off its implementation of the widely used Webkit rendering technology for its own purposes, saying that creating its own rendering engine, called Blink, will allow it more freedom. Not long after—and the timing wasn’t planned, either—Mozilla, the company that created Firefox, announced its plans to collaborate with Samsung on a next-generation browser engine, Servo, designed for mobile browsers.
If you’re a web developer, why does it matter? Simply, because you remember IE6.
Developer Headaches of the Past
Launched in 2001 to coincide with the release of Windows XP, Internet Explorer 6 stayed in purgatory for more than five years, with Microsoft failing to keep up with the most recent web trends—in particular, the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) standard (IE’s implementation of CSS was flawed). And when Microsoft finally released updated versions, much of its audience failed to upgrade at the same time, leading to security issues and years of headaches for web developers balancing their desire to use the latest and greatest with end users’ inability to use said latest and greatest.
The good news is that, unless you live in China, your users probably aren’t using IE6 anymore.
But if you dig back a little further, the stew that led to Internet Explorer 6 was cooked up through years of fragmentation in the market, where Netscape and Microsoft added new features at mind-bending speed, introducing incompatibilities between the two browsers and creating a difficult mess for web developers. (Netscape eventually faded and rose again a few years later, in the form of the standards-friendly Firefox.)
If you’re a web developer, you don’t want to deal with complications. You just want people to be able to see your association’s site, no matter the platform.
That’s why this news might raise concerns for you. But a lot has changed since 2001.
Why This is Different
If you read up on browser developer Opera’s move to the Webkit platform earlier this year, it may have briefly seemed like Webkit, which has become something of a default option for smartphones, was going to become a de facto standard, as both Android and iOS use the technology on mobile, and Chrome and Safari also utilize the rendering engine on the desktop.
But Blink, and to a lesser extent Servo, throw a wrench in the mix. (Opera, by the way, is going with Blink, not Webkit.)
It will create more headaches for developers, as change always does, simply because there will be more things to test out. But maybe that’s a good thing: Internet Explorer 6 proved the dangers of a monoculture on the web, and the competition is more mature at this point (and end users better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the web), so we may not see a repeat of the first browser wars this time around.
And there’s a major difference between the world of the web circa 2001 and the web we have now: All major browser companies are following and contributing to standards, rather than merely playing lip service and trying to compete by creating useless doodads like the infamous <blink> tag. That means that the basis for this technology, even as it plays up its differences, will stay consistently the same.
Ultimately, web standards need to evolve. As we reported yesterday, Gartner predicts tablets will top desktops in just a few short years. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Mozilla need the room to expand this technology so that we’re not relying on a desktop mentality to create a mobile-based future.
It’s just like your association. As things change, you have to change with them.
But I’ll admit it. If Google Chrome becomes IE6, mark two, I’ll be the first to complain.