A few folks have asked me what I think of the news yesterday that Opera is moving away from their own technology stack to build on top of WebKit going forward.
From Opera’s perspective as a business, I think they probably had to do this. They’ve got a much larger global footprint than most people know — hundreds of millions of users, mostly on mobile — but the lion’s share of that are on devices that I don’t think matter much in the future — they’re dumb phones, not smartphones like Android or iOS. Apple’s restrictions mean that as long as they’re using their own renderer, they couldn’t be on iOS. Android is possible, for sure, but they’d have to decide whether to only be on Android or support two different rendering technologies for Android & iOS. Then you’re left with what is a very existential question for a browser maker: is your browser all about compatibility of site from platform to platform? Or just about the UX? (FWIW, everyone will answer this question somewhat differently — your mileage may vary.)
So from a tech stack perspective, given their history, I think Opera just decided they needed something more coherent, and more compatible with now-dominant WebKit (which is, obviously, an extremely good piece of technology and open source phenomenon overall).
From a broader web perspective, I don’t think it matters a lot that Opera is moving. It matters on the margins for sure — they’ve always had smart, dedicated people, and have been a distinctive and differentiated voice that’s made the overall web stronger as it’s evolved. But the consumer market has never really much cared about Opera overall despite their technical excellence.
So it doesn’t matter much for the overall web, in my view.
I’m seeing many arguments (from very smart people) that extrapolating from this, we should applaud a shrinking of the number of distinct rendering engines, we should all move to WebKit.
I don’t think that argument is a good one, though. Obviously I have a point of view that’s heavily influenced by my time at Mozilla, but now, in 2013, as a personal matter, I’m not particularly attached to any specific web engine — I think we have 2 or 3 very strong options, wrapped up with an increasing number of interesting user interfaces on mobile & tablet.
But what I have learned being around the Mozilla folks is that technologies always, always, always have arcs. Seems obvious. But decisions that seem incredibly clear in the near term — say a period of 3 or 4 years — don’t always seem so clear several years later. The team at Mozilla has been around the web since pretty close to inception. They’ve seen the rise of the web and HTML & JS. They’ve seen rises & falls in market share of several different browsers. And they’ve seen the rises and falls of: Java, Flash, IE’s Trident.
What we know for sure is this: monocultures always make more & faster progress in the near term when they’re stewarded by strong, vibrant leaders. But over time you get stuck. Companies change, sensibilities change. And then you’ve got all the technology, and all talent, and all of the best thinkers, all trapped on one technology stack.
The argument with WebKit is that since it’s open source, you can always fork it, take it over when the stewarding organization becomes indifferent or incapable, of moving it forward.
To that I would say “maybe.”
We don’t really know for sure. We don’t really know how this will play out over the next few years, especially as our mobile platforms are verticalized and locked down. We just don’t know what we don’t know about how business and technology pressures will change the strategies of the most involved companies, and how that will exert pressure on the web.
What we do know is that in technology, we’ve never been served well by monocultures — we know this for sure. I worry that in our desire for clearer definition, easier standards, faster progress, we’re forgetting that we know this. Same as it ever was, I suppose.