The browser wars have taken a new direction. Google has announced that it will split off a new rendering engine from the open source WebKit that is used in its Chrome browser and Chrome OS, as well as in Apple’s Safari and others. The new open source engine is called Blink, and now Opera has announced it will also go Blink.

The company said it was making this move because Chromium, the open source foundation on which the Chrome browser and OS are based, uses a different multi-process architecture than other WebKit-based browsers, so development of WebKit was slowed down as it accommodated different versions.

The default Android browser, as well as the ones for Symbian and BlackBerry 10 devices, use variants of WebKit. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer uses Trident and Mozilla has Gecko.

Code Cleanup, Features Standards

On its Chromium Blog, Google Software Engineer Adam Barth noted that “a new rendering engine can have significant implication for the web.” The key implication is that it could complicate application development for third-party software developers, even as HTML5 is gaining strength as a “write once/deploy many” solution for app development across different mobile platforms and devices.

But, Barth added, Google believes that “multiple rendering engines -- similar to having multiple browsers -- will spur innovation and over time improve the health of the entire open web ecosystem.”

He said that, in the short turn, there will be “little change” for developers, since the initial emphasis will be on cleaning up the codebase and improving the internal architecture. Over the longer run, Barth said, “a healthier codebase leads to more stability,” and Google has established guidelines for new features that emphasize standards and interoperability.

A rendering engine generates the layout of a browser’s pages from its HTML, Javascript and CSS. WebKit was originally created by Apple for Safari, and was released in 2005 as open source. Powering both the Chrome and Safari browsers, WebKit had been positioned as the most popular rendering engine, with 40 percent of the market.

Opera, Mozilla

WebKit Logo.png

In February, Opera had announced it was also moving to WebKit, and to the consternation of some, said it would abandon both its Presto engine and its ongoing development of a new engine.

Even while there are now some concerns about multiple rendering engines to support, Opera’s move to WebKit led to complaints in the developer community that WebKit was becoming the dominant engine, which could stifle innovation, especially in mobile.

At the time, Opera said that its move was helping to make WebKit the de facto rendering engine.

But, shortly after Google announced on Wednesday that it was moving to Blink, Opera said it was doing the same. Opera has said it is committed to Chromium, and that it wants to free up resources related to rendering engines and apply them to creating new products or features.

Some browser-watchers suggest that, since Blink is a fork of WebKit, supporting Blink might not be too much of a heavy lift. As two of the five major browser vendors are now supporting Blink, the momentum appears to have shifted to the new engine.

In another development making this "The Week of Rendering Engines," Mozilla and Samsung have announced they will develop Mozilla’s work-in-progress Servo layout engine for the Android platform and for ARM-based devices. Servo is designed specifically to be highly secure and to take advantage of multi-core architectures. If it succeeds, Servo could replace Gecko, and could add to the fragmentation of the Android platform.