The New Front in the OS Wars: Browser Rendering Engines

Yesterday and today, all the attention seems to be on Facebook’s new “Home on Android”. The stock is up, and the new product is being covered all over the blogosphere. But we think there was a far more important development yesterday Google and Opera’s announcement of a new browser rendering engine called Blink.

While Facebook’s Android suite is interesting, it essentially just one more product looking to fill the gap left open by the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem.

By contrast, the new web rendering engine marks an important new front in the strategic outlook for mobile software over a very long time horizon. We have been writing about the importance of web standards for mobile for a long time, almost as long as we have been writing about Android fragmentation. (For those interested, we can send you a note from last year that laid out our prediction that the most important upcoming platform battle would take place in the chat rooms and e-mail lists of the web standards groups like the W3C.)

For years, if you asked most senior mobile software strategists about the future of mobile operating systems (OS), they would tell you that today’s fragmentation of multiple OS (iOS, Android, Windows Phone, etc.) will eventually be subsumed under web standards. In this world, Web tools like HTML5, JavaScript and CSS will eventually replace native programming tools like Objective-C for iOS in the creation of mobile apps. We have touched on this in a few recent posts. Set aside our growing skepticism about this thesis, if this is how things actually develop that means today’s OS wars will be replaced by browser wars. More specifically, there will be a big fight over web standards. Hence our view that the battle ground will shift to the forums where such web standards are determined.

The key detail here is that unlike telecom standards, the standard-settings bodies for web tools are highly decentralized. The people who make browsers want to promote new features, they implement them in their products, and then evangelize for web designers to adopt them and for other browser makers to incorporate them. Once a feature gains some adoption it is rolled into the standards. The process is more complex this, but stands in stark contrast to telecom standards where nothing gets built until everyone agrees ahead of time.

So what has Google actually announced? Web browsers have several key components, one of the most important of which is the rendering engine. This translates data coming from some server into pixels on the browser screen. One piece of code sets the background color, another runs some JavaScript code and gets positioned on a certain spot on the screen. Etc. This is an important part of the browser.

PC browsers use a variety of rendering engines, but for many years most mobile browsers used the WebKit engine. WebKit was originally developed by Apple, but they spun it out as an open source project several years ago. Google has now developed a new open sourced rendering engine which they are calling Blink. In their announcement of Blink the Google team makes it a point to highlight the weaknesses of WebKit. This has predictably started a fight on the WebKit blogs which are as much about history as they are about technical details. Suffice it to say that there are some pretty clear strategic objectives here, this is not just a conversation about technology.

In some ways, that is a shame. One of the key claimed improvements in Blink is the ability to better handle multi-processing. We think this is one of those huge but subtle undercurrents of technology. As the world moves to mutli-core processors, there is still a big gap in the ability of software to make use of it, so these sorts of developments will become more common.

But beyond that subject, it seems likely that Google has reasons to worry about the competitive status of their mobile browser just as browsers stand to become one of the key elements of mobile technology.

It is too early to call how this will play out. Given the way in which browser features become standards, the ability of one browser to interoperate with others is very important. Nothing makes life harder for web designers than compatibility. All these different features can make web pages perform poor or become unreadable. That’s why websites can often look strange on mobile devices. Google went out of their way to highlight all the interoperability they are building into Blink, but it is clear that this will still produce some wrinkles for web designers.

Five years from now, Facebook will be several generations down the path with some new mobile app, but the introduction of Blink will likely have lasting impact.

One response to “The New Front in the OS Wars: Browser Rendering Engines

  1. Pingback: Apps and the state of programming languages – DIGITS to DOLLARS·

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