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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.

Fork in the road ahead

What Blink and Servo have in common is the untangling of relationships among competitors in the mobile world. Samsung's fortunes are tied to Android; and even as Google moves to Blink for its browsers, Samsung may want to fork Android or switch to Firefox OS. Google owns Samsung's competitor Motorola, whose financial straits antedate Google's acquisition by some years. Working with Mozilla on a browser engine appears to be a logical step for Samsung to take before adopting an OS that allows it to part from Google.

For its part, Google remains hobbled by ceding the future of WebKit to Apple. On a Hacker News thread, a Google developer pointed out that earlier this year Apple essentially laid claim to having the final say in all WebKit2 decisions. In an open-source project, the effectiveness of such an assertion depends on the willingness of the project's leadership to accede. If they can't resolve governance issues to their satisfaction, other parties are free to fork off--as Google did.

Though much of the surrounding rhetoric is nominally about performance, the core issues boil down to the sale of mobile devices and the viewing of advertisements on those devices. A better browser--one that is speedier and perhaps has enhancements to improve the experience--could help persuade users to purchase one device over another. Control of the browser can also mean control of the search engine it uses and of the display of ads.

But none of this translates into the kind of unruly world we had when Microsoft was the big dog and IE 5 and IE 6 were the steaming messes it left on our doorstep, which we're still cleaning up. The relatively broad distribution of power today across multiple engines, companies, and platforms ensures that no individual party can strong-arm websites into updating in a way that breaks the experience for 40 to 80 percent of potential visitors. There may be a war in heaven, but the sky isn't falling.


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