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Opera’s shift to WebKit makes a lot of sense

In a rather shocking move, Opera has announced that its arsenal of mobile, desktop, and embedded web browsers will transition from its in-house Presto rendering engine to WebKit, the rendering engine used by Safari and Chrome. This marks the first time that a major web browser has changed rendering engine, and also the eventual death of Presto. The fact is that this change will result in a faster and more standards-compliant web for users of Opera and other browsers.

This announcement piggybacks on the news that Opera has now reached 300 million monthly users across desktop, mobile, TV, and game consoles. In the PC (desktop) segment, Opera has never really got off the ground, claiming just 1 or 2 per cent of the market. Opera has always done well in the mobile and embedded markets, though – mostly because of Opera Turbo, which uses server-side compression to speed up surfing on slow connections and weak hardware.

Moving to WebKit is a big shift, but it makes a lot of sense. With the millions of man hours being pumped into WebKit by Apple and Google, and the massive market shares accumulated by WebKit-based browsers (Chrome, Safari, iOS, Android), Presto never really stood a chance.

The fact is that most web developers primarily target WebKit, with a secondary focus on Gecko and Trident. Standards-compliant websites still generally work under Opera/Presto, but they’re rarely optimised or fully tested. From the wording in the press release, it sounds like Opera will basically be porting its unique features and UI over to Chromium, the open source version of Chrome that uses the WebKit layout engine and V8 JavaScript engine.

By switching to WebKit/Chromium, Opera will not only become faster and more functional, but it will also allow its Norwegian developers to focus on the browser’s overall user experience. Really, this is a win-win situation for everyone involved – with just one tiny, niggling exception, depending on your point of view: Software monoculture.

Heck, a web browser monoculture might even be desirable. Imagine if every browser used WebKit. For a start, web developers would be dancing in the streets, celebrating the fact that they can design one website or app, and have it work perfectly across every platform.

For the end user, the web would be faster and more efficient (a huge boon for mobile devices), and everything would just work. It sounds almost utopian, but like any monopoly it puts us – the web surfers – in a precarious position where choice is very limited. It is a very small step from blissful, almost communistic cross-compatibility to a dictatorial, monolithic, Google-owned-and-operated Internet.