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.