How The Web Became Just Another App Store

And how Google and Apple have taken control of it.

Opera, one of the last of a shrinking pool of independent browsers, is officially changing the way it displays the internet. Soon, rather than using its own rendering engine, Presto, it will render websites using a version of WebKit. This is the same engine used by Google’s Chrome, the most popular browser in the world right now, as well as Apple’s browser, Safari.

It’s also the same engine that underpins both Mobile Safari on the iPhone and iPad and the default browser in Android — the two most popular mobile browsers by far.

WebKit, in other words, has orchestrated and executed one of the largest, and quietest, coups in tech history. Consider this:

3. WebKit is the only major rendering engine that’s growing:

Chrome and Safari are WebKit. Mozilla and IE, which are shrinking, are not.

4. WebKit is synonymous with mobile:

The two most popular browsers are built on WebKit; the third, Opera, is switching.

5. And phones and tablets are taking over:

Barring a huge surprise rally by Microsoft, they’re going to stay WebKit.

6. It’s not too early to call it: WebKit has won.


This means that soon, creating a website will mean something different than it ever has before — rather than trying to build a website that’s compatible with nine different browsers based on four different engines, web developers will be creating sites that work with WebKit, and increasingly similar variations thereof. They will be building apps instead of sites, on WebKit technology instead of web technology. The process, in other words, will become more and more like creating an app for an app store; like building an iPhone app minus the human approval process.

This doesn’t mean that the all-web-app future, which has gotten off to numerous false starts — most dramatically when Steve Jobs claimed at WWDC in 2007, “you can write amazing Web 2.0 and Ajax apps that look exactly and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone,” and more recently when major iPhone and Android apps, such as Facebook’s, backed away from web tech due to slow performance — is here. But it means that we finally know how it’ll become feasible.

WebKit’s domination is also an early death knell for web standards as we know them today. When following official World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards is in developers’ best interest — when it ensures their sites will work for most people — web standards have power. When there’s a true WebKit monopoly, that power shifts to WebKit and the browsers that use it. In international relations terms, the W3C is the U.N., and WebKit is a growing empire that controls a majority of its member countries.

This will change how new web features get made, explains Peter-Paul Koch:

Opera’s power to support certain standards by implementing them has diminished. Sure, they can add a feature to WebKit, but that’s not the same as adding it to Presto and shipping it. There’s rather a lot of players involved in WebKit, and some may disagree with the proposed standard and not implement it.

Will a feature that’s implemented in only one or two WebKit-based browsers count as an interoperable implementation for W3C? I don’t know, and I suspect W3C doesn’t know either. Still, this question has suddenly become rather important.

This is an existential crisis for the organization that has decided for decades what is part of HTML and what isn’t. WebKit’s creeping domination means that its most powerful patrons, Google and Apple, will take control of what’s part of the web and what isn’t.

The last company in this position was Microsoft, back when Internet Explorer 6 was the most popular browser in the world and the company was free to jam proprietary web standards into the mainstream (often at the expense of browsers like Safari and Firefox).

Perhaps the most powerful indicator of What This Means, then, is that Microsoft, which knows a thing or two about controlling the web as a platform, is now terrified. “You might currently target WebKit on a site specifically optimized to support iOS or Android,” Microsoft wrote to developers in November.

“Now,” the post continues, with a hint of desperation, “it’s very easy to adapt a WebKit-optimized site to also support IE10.”

What the post doesn’t say is when Microsoft will make the switch too. Eventually it might not have a choice.

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