The Changing Web Platform Landscape: More Fragmentation?
The Web is an ever changing place and the first half of the year has been rich in surprises, big announcements and industry shifts! A diversity of implementations is good for many reasons we will discuss. But a more fragmented web could be the price to pay. Will it be the case?
About Implementation diversity
A few weeks ago Opera announced they were stopping work on their Presto rendering engine and switching to Chromium. They have already started contributing code to the project. Then, earlier this month, Google announced the Blink project, essentially a new fork of WebKit. And now Opera announced they will contribute to Blink!
Reactions were interesting as we went from WebKit monopoly concerns to worries about web platform fragmentation in a matter of weeks. Quite a 180 degrees turn!
At Adobe, we actively contribute to Web standards and browser implementations (historically mostly WebKit and Chromium, even though we also make some contributions to Gecko). As such we are delighted to see Opera join one of the projects we contribute to. Their considerable web expertise will undoubtedly be an asset.
So we were not too concerned about a WebKit monoculture. But…
As Brendan Eich says in his blog about “why Mozilla matters”:
“The web needs multiple implementations of its evolving standards to keep them interoperable.”
I believe this tenet to be central to delivering on the promise of the Open Web. A single implementation does not establish a standard. The W3C process even recommends two implementations in order for a specification to reach completion.
The Web needs Mozilla’s Gecko and Microsoft’s Trident engines to nurture an open, innovative environment. Historically, both companies have done a lot for the Web – think of XHR which Microsoft invented (among other key contributions) or WOFF from Mozilla – and they continue to innovate: Microsoft and Mozilla co-edit the CSS Grid specification, which provides much needed and improved layout flexibility to CSS.
I trust that the addition of Blink will strengthen an already healthy browser competition. Over time, the Blink code base will diverge from WebKit’s but no harm to the web occurs if both engines implement the same features in different ways. Only significantly different feature sets could result in harmful fragmentation. Making sure that WebKit, Blink and other browser engines interoperate is more important than it has ever been.
About testing, fragmentation and experimental features
As the founders of Test the Web Forward, we have come to appreciate the mutually reinforcing benefits multiple independent implementations bring to standards. Historically, testing has been key to the success of web standards. For example, the focused testing effort on CSS 2.1 has shaped that specification and its implementations in the corner stone CSS has become. A single implementation would leave a lot of stones unturned.
It should also be noted that the Blink policy regarding prefixes is really good for standards and compatibility across browsers: draft standard features can become truly experimental features that will not be used (and abused) in production. This should help avoid browser compatibility headaches down the line and I hope this example will be followed by all browsers.
About fragmentation and Adobe’s contributions
In this new web platform landscape, what about Adobe’s contributions to open source browsers? What impact does additional browser fragmentation has on Adobe’s efforts?
Adobe contributes to standards in open browser implementations for many reasons.
One of them is that our new generation Edge tools use a ‘web design surface’. For well over a year now, we have chosen to use the Chromium Embeded Framework (CEF) to provide this ‘web design surface’. So naturally, we will contribute to Blink since it is now the core engine that powers CEF.
Another reason for contributing to open browsers is to accelerate the availability of new features on the web. This is why we collaborate with Mozilla on a number of standards and contribute code to Gecko (like this patch on masking for canvas). And this is why we will also contribute to WebKit, in addition to Blink, now that the two are separate projects.
An open, innovative and tested web!
So yes, I think it is good to have multiple browser engines and Blink is a welcome addition to the web platform landscape. It is bringing a healthy diversity that I hope will help keep the web open and foster innovation as long as all browsers strive to implement ‘the same web’.
And this is where testing efforts are key to achieving diversity without fragmentation. I hope testing activities (of browser code of course, but of standard test suites as well and major initiatives that the W3C is driving) will be a major focus for all the browser vendors going forward, in particular for Google with its new Blink implementation.