Browser War III

There has been much excitement in the world of browser development in the past few months, with talk of world domination and even the start of a new browser war.

The story began in February, when Opera announced it was stopping development of its Presto rendering engine and adopting the WebKit engine that powers Apple Safari and Google Chrome. The news wasn’t universally well received. CNET, for one, “bemoan[ed] the loss of Opera independence”.

The real significance of Opera’s decision is the tipping point it marks – a recognition that all browser traffic is moving towards WebKit

Indeed, with Presto gone, only three underlying browser ecosystems remained – WebKit, Microsoft’s Trident and Mozilla’s Gecko.
But while the death of Presto is sad, it’s hardly world-changing. Wikipedia’s overview of browser share makes it clear that Opera is by far the smallest major browser, with usage constant at around 2%. Evidently, the Presto engine never threatened to go mainstream. For the two big WebKit-based browsers, it’s a different story.

The figures vary depending on the source, but W3Counter’s statistics from May 2007 indicate that Internet Explorer had a 67% share of all traffic, Firefox had 25% and Safari and Opera had around 2% each. In July 2009, Internet Explorer was still dominant, with 57%, but Firefox had jumped to 32%, Safari had nudged up to 5% and the nascent Chrome accounted for 3%. Opera, meanwhile, was still stuck at 2%.

The latest stats available at the time of writing, for April 2013, show that Chrome is now on top, with 32%, while Internet Explorer has 23%, Firefox has 21%, Safari has 15% and Opera has 2%. So, while Presto flatlined around 2%, the WebKit-based browsers have risen from 2% to 47% in six years. Once Opera joins, WebKit will be rendering more than half of all page views.

More fundamental still is the fact mobile traffic in July 2009 had just broken 1%; now, it’s closer to 15%. As smartphone and tablet usage continue to explode – both now outsell PCs – mobile traffic will eventually outstrip desktop access. WebKit’s dominance in the mobile arena is stronger still, since it’s the engine in both iOS and Android’s default browsers.

Of course, the inexorable rise of WebKit means a fall elsewhere. Usage of Microsoft’s Trident engine has fallen by over two-thirds from a peak of 96%, and the company is clearly finding it hard to gain a foothold in the smartphone and tablet space. The drop in Gecko’s share is more recent and less precipitous, but it, too, has fallen by a third –from a far lower peak – and now barely has a toehold in the mobile arena. Few Android users choose to install Firefox in place of Chrome, and iOS users don’t even have the choice – Apple mandates the use of WebKit for all third-party browsers.

The real significance of Opera’s decision is the tipping point it marks – a recognition that all browser traffic is moving towards WebKit. The business logic has become inescapable – if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

WebKit domiance

Is WebKit’s dominance good for the web as a whole? Not surprisingly, Opera says it is. Relieved of playing catch-up, its developers can now concentrate on other stuff, such as their radical touch-based interface, codenamed “Ice”. It also makes sense for them to be improving the more popular and open-source WebKit engine, as they’re doing with CSS3-based pagination. Moreover, the death of Presto makes life simpler for us web designers, who now have only three engines to worry about.

Put like that, WebKit’s ever-increasing dominance – even its ascent to hegemony – sounds like great news. Many designers have already started using WebKit-specific CSS prefixes to access its advanced features.

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