Losing Opera to WebKit

It still feels like an April Fool’s joke, but Opera is in fact switching to WebKit and discontinuing their own engine, Presto.

I can sort of understand. They can stop worrying about the long-running headaches of browser-sniffing websites that assume Opera can’t do things that it can. They can focus their efforts on the features they want to add or enhance, instead of maintaining their own separate codebase.

But here’s the thing: Throughout its history, Opera has served as a check against monoculture, against a single engine dominating the web too thoroughly. And now, it’s embracing the engine that dominates the fast-growing mobile web.

Remember the bad old days when people just wrote for Internet Explorer, and there was basically no innovation in web browser capabilities? It took Firefox’s success to turn the tide, but Opera was there, needling the industry with things like the “Bork edition” which turned the tables on browser-sniffing websites. Opera was a constant reminder that no, the web isn’t just Internet Explorer and Firefox, or just Internet Explorer and Webkit, or just two flavors of WebKit. That it was worth building technologies to leverage cross-browser web standards instead of picking the current 800-pound gorilla and feeding it even more.

There’s a real value in having different engines approaching the web in different ways, because it prevents stagnation. And there’s real value in having different engines use different code, even when implementing the same capabilities, because that means when a security flaw is found in one browser, it doesn’t apply to all of them. I go into this in a lot more detail in the old, but IMO still relevant article, Why do we need alternative web browsers?

The problem, of course, is that as much as I appreciate that role for Opera, it’s never really been their goal. Opera’s purpose is to sell web browser-related services. In the past, an open web was necessary to do that. Now, they’re throwing in their lot with the front-runner instead.

That leaves Mozilla, whose mission actually is to promote an open web, to go it alone. Apple and Microsoft certainly don’t care. And Google only really cares to the extent that their services are available as widely as possible. And when you get onto mobile, all three prioritize getting you into their particular silo.

Webkit browsers are a dime a dozen. The only ones that really matter are Chrome and Safari, and Safari is a lot more important on iOS. Opera will soon be just like Dolphin, Rockmelt and others that I have to rack my brains to remember. Maybe it’ll be enough for the company to survive, but it won’t be enough to keep them relevant.

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