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Browser engine forking isn't the end of the world

Glenn Fleishman | April 10, 2013
Announcements from browser makers last week may recall the bad old days of browser incompatibility, but this isn't IE6 all over again.

If you're a fan of Web standards and compatibility, two announcements from last week probably have you clutching your cascading style sheets in terror. First, Firefox maker Mozilla struck a partnership with Samsung in which the handset manufacturer pledged to help bring an experimental Web browser engine called Servo to phones with ARM processors running the Android operating system. (ARM chips power most Android phones--and most mobile devices.) Then Google's browser team said it would be "forking"--creating a new branch of code--from the WebKit engine that Apple helped bring into being and develop for its Safari browser.

This sparked a torrent of tizzies among Web developers and users with long memories. Surely, Twitter tweeters and Web commenters wailed, having different versions of the engines that browsers rely on to transform the HTML code in pages into graphical layouts in browsers means the return of incompatibility! Google (or Samsung or Mozilla) will use its deviance from WebKit to create new properties and options that will either break the display of standards-compliant existing sites or add new options that only users of browsers powered by the new engines can take advantage of! Or both!

Fear not, world. It won't play out that way. In fact, structurally, it can't. Nobody has enough control over desktop or mobile browsers--not even Apple with iOS--to win a new battle of the broken browsers. Still, for people who remember the way things were back to 2006 and earlier, last week's browser machinations may have triggered some not-so-pleasant flashbacks. Let me talk them (and you) down from the ledge.

Engine of creation

A browser's engine is the unseen motive force that, when you visit a webpage, requests the page's HTML file and all the images and media associated with it, and turns them into something you can interact with graphically. What we think of as a browser comprises the front-end user interface that we poke at and view, and the hidden engine that handles parsing, scripting, formatting, networking, plug-in architecture, and display. (Like any other software, the browser leans on the operating system to hand off tasks such as drawing fonts and processing mouse clicks.)

In the dark days of the Web, between about 1999 and 2006, Microsoft held a dominant share (around 90 percent) of the market; but its Internet Explorer 5 browser was full of fail, and version 6 didn't improve matters once it arrived in 2001. In that era, to make Web styles (CSS or Cascading Style Sheets) work correctly in layouts with any degree of object placement, you had to break CSS. You had to write a combination of good code (that did what you wanted) and bad code (that smart browsers would ignore but IE 5 and IE 6 would pay attention to). Each version had different broken parts, too.


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