Technologizer

Today’s Browser News: A Second Act for Firefox?

Google splinters WebKit; Mozilla strikes a deal with Samsung. This could be a landmark moment for browsers.

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I usually don’t spend much time fixated on the technologies that power web browsers. But today brought two pieces of news which could — just maybe — add up to the beginnings of a sea change for the whole web, especially on mobile devices.

News item #1: Google, which currently uses the same WebKit rendering engine which Apple originally devised for its Safari browsers, has decided to use WebKit as the basis for a new engine for its Chrome browsers:

WebKit is a lightweight yet powerful rendering engine that emerged out of KHTML in 2001. Its flexibility, performance and thoughtful design made it the obvious choice for Chromium’s rendering engine back when we started. Thanks to the hard work by all in the community, WebKit has thrived and kept pace with the web platform’s growing capabilities since then.

However, Chromium uses a different multi-process architecture than other WebKit-based browsers, and supporting multiple architectures over the years has led to increasing complexity for both the WebKit and Chromium projects. This has slowed down the collective pace of innovation – so today, we are introducing Blink, a new open source rendering engine based on WebKit.

News item #2: Firefox creator Mozilla has announced that it’s working with Samsung on Servo, a new rendering engine which is written in a programming language called Rust:

We are now pleased to announce with Samsung that together we are bringing both the Rust programming language and Servo, the experimental web browser engine, to Android and ARM. This is an exciting step in the evolution of both projects that will allow us to start deeper research with Servo on mobile. Samsung has already contributed an ARM backend to Rust and the build infrastructure necessary to cross-compile to Android, along with many other improvements.

Now, Google’s decision to carve off a variant of WebKit which it can call its own is interesting, but it’s not shocking. As a leading desktop browser, the default Android browser and a whole operating system, Chrome is exceptionally important to the company, and Chrome’s rendering engine is its single most important compenent. By taking control of Blink, Google can integrate the engine more tightly into Chrome, making decisions on its own without having to convince any of the other organizations which are involved with WebKit. And odds are that the results won’t be anything that a typical Chrome user will need to worry about.

But if you’re not Google — which, last time I checked, Mozilla isn’t — devoting a lot of energy to building fundamental browser technologies for Android might seem like an idiosyncratic effort. There simply isn’t any evidence so far that teeming masses of Android users are unhappy enough with Google’s default browser (which became Chrome as of Android 4.1 Jellybean) to jump ship. Which, in theory, might doom every alternative browser to being a niche product at best.

Except: Mozilla’s partner is Samsung, by far the largest manufacturer of Android smartphones, and a company which increasingly seems to regard Android as a raw ingredient rather than a selling point. If Samsung were to decide to yank out Chrome and swap in a future version of Firefox built on Servo, the new browser would instantly have an enormous user base. It’s premature to think that Samsung is even contemplating such an option, but it’s fun to think about. And Google’s WebKit-splintering decision might make it at least a little easier for Servo, which isn’t WebKit at all, to gain a toehold.

When the first version of Firefox came along almost a decade ago, it was a transformative moment for beleagured PC users, who were stuck at the time with a miserably bad version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and no viable alternatives. (Here I am at the time telling people to ditch IE and use Firefox, as quoted in an old Fortune article.)

2013 is a very different era, in part because of Firefox’s breakup of IE’s monopoly: every default browser is an entirely respectable product, including the current version of IE. Which is good, because on iOS and Windows 8, a third-party developer like Mozilla doesn’t have the free reign it needs to build its own browser from scratch. Bottom line: if Mozilla figures out a way to make Firefox into a big deal on mobile devices, it won’t be by repeating Firefox’s early history.

Today, I’m an occasional Firefox user rather than a Firefox fanatic, but it would still warm my heart to see the browser matter as much on mobile devices as it has on conventional PCs. And this deal with Samsung provides the first glimmer of hope I’ve seen that such an outcome is even theoretically possible.

16 comments
stefn
stefn

No problem. I'm sure it will be open ... open ... open.

caspy7
caspy7

The author seems to think (at least he talks that way) that Servo is an Android only effort, but it is not.  Servo development began a while ago on the desktop.  Its ultimate destinations would find it on all platforms Firefox currently resides.

virrtual2013
virrtual2013

FireYUCK to the rescue...not. As usual curtailing onto another product. Their weak attempt of an OS and now riding back seat to a leader (samsung) Get a life FireYUCK. Microsoft didn't want you, Apple doesn't want you and they still can't seem to fix their failover memory problem, coincidence...i think not. 

caspy7
caspy7

@virrtual2013Their OS is still in beta and hasn't even been released (even then I'd allow them an update or two to polish off any rough edges before judging).  And Firefox currently beats all the other browsers for memory usage.

virrtual2013
virrtual2013

@caspy7 @virrtual2013...and if we are all lucky it will stay in beta, and more than likely it will considering that it is teaming up with Samsung. Another curtail solution for fireYUCK and will of course toot it's own horn when it finally comes out. Why can't fireYUCK do it themselves, why do they always need to piggy back onto someone else's efforts, why? It's easy THEY HAVE NO TALENT!!!


Seanmyr
Seanmyr

@caspy7 @virrtual2013  I agree with you that Firefox currently beats all other browsers for memory usage.  I'm a web developer and as a web developer I routinely need to test the things I do on all major browsers.  As a result of this I tend to have both Firefox and Chrome loaded up for a week at a time before I shut them down (sometimes even longer).  So the other day I was talking with another co-worker about Firefox and Chrome and he said he uses Chrome because Firefox is so bad on memory.  So I opened Windows Task Manager and went to the processes tab to see which one was using more memory.  At any given time I have on average 10 tabs open in Firefox and usually only 2 or 3 open in Chrome.  Chrome was using way more memory for those 2 or 3 tabs than Firefox was.  Another thing to note is that since I prefer Firefox I have a lot more add-ons installed in my Firefox browser than I do in Chrome.


Now don't get me wrong, I still like Chrome.  It is a good browser.  I just don't use it as my main browser and I do get tired of everyone saying that Firefox is the worst on memory management when it clearly is, at the very least, just as good as Chrome, if not better.

virrtual2013
virrtual2013

@Seanmyr @caspy7 @virrtual2013 You seem to think I am a big fan of Chrome. Chrome is a HOG when it comes to memory usage. Chrome is none other than Google's first attempt at a browser. It's ok, but I only use it as a secondary browser. Since IE8 we have seen much improvement with MS browser and 9 and 10 are excellent choices when used with mhmm THEIR OWN OS ;-) Netscape was a much better browser than FireYUCK ever was. It is too bad they were bought out by AO-HELL and incorporated fireYUCK aka Seamonkey. Navigator was and always will be the Dominant Browser as far as browsers go, but that was then and this is now. IE is dominating the Browsers without any doubt and it's only the die hard stuck on stupid users that still drag the beast onto MS. Quit dissing MS and go to Linux and use your fireYUCK browser to your hearts content, but until something better comes along, MS is still the preferred OS. It always makes me chuckle when someone bags MS when they have done more for the computer industry then fireYUCK EVER HAS!!! One little piece to a GIANT Puzzle and that piece don't even fit right :-D RedHat/Firewall, Server 2008/12 File Server, Windows/Ubuntu client side IE/Chrome/ium is the preferred network of choice. So why do we use Chrome if it is a memory hog? Easy, it's very fast and if a tab get stuck the browser doesn't have to be closed in order to fix it. We also like it for the Cloud Printing Features it offers for Chrome Books and Tablets. Much more resourceful than fireYUCK, faster than fireYUCK, smoother than fireYUCK. 

johbi
johbi

Dolphin on my Android phone, Firefox on the PC.

IE and Google Chrome can go straight to hell. 

apopkafl
apopkafl

Browser philosophy is almost political. i OS is totalitarian, Chrome is free market capitalist, and Firefox is socialist. Funny to me I am socialist on my laptop and free market on my phone. 

iworkfare
iworkfare

Chrome seems faster than firefox nowadays, but I still use firefox, for some pretty powerful extensions that have no equivalent in chrome. The fact that Firefox is also now a smartphone OS (as in, Firefox OS) is another interesting progress to watch. This deal with samsung could also mean that they're also making an attempt to push Firefox OS into one of Samsung products, rather than replacing the stock browser that come with Samsung products using Android.

apopkafl
apopkafl

Using Firefox on a laptop ATM. I use Dolphin on my Galaxy S II. Chrome on my work desktop. All are capable browsers.

albert71292
albert71292

I try other browsers, but keep going back to Firefox.