Journal tags: engines

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Implementors

The latest newsletter from The History Of The Web is a good one: The Browser Engine That Could. It’s all about the history of browsers and more specifically, rendering engines.

Jay quotes from a 1992 email by Tim Berners-Lee when there was real concern about having too many different browsers. But as history played out, the concern shifted to having too few different browsers.

I wrote about this—back when Edge switched to using Chromium—in a post called Unity where I compared it to political parties:

If you have hundreds of different political parties, that’s not ideal. But if you only have one political party, that’s very bad indeed!

I talked about this some more with Brian and Stuart on the Igalia Chats podcast: Web Ecosystem Health (here’s the mp3 file).

In the discussion we dive deeper into the naunces of browser engine diversity; how it’s not the numbers that matter, but representation. The danger with one dominant rendering engine is that it would reflect one dominant set of priorities.

I think we’re starting to see this kind of battle between different sets of priorities playing out in the browser rendering engine landscape.

Webkit published a list of APIs they won’t be implementing in their current form because of security concerns around fingerprinting. Mozilla is taking the same stand. Google is much more gung-ho about implementing those APIs.

I think it’s safe to say that every implementor wants to ship powerful APIs and ensure security and privacy. The issue is with which gets priority. Using the language of principles and priorities, you could crudely encapsulate Apple and Mozilla’s position as:

Privacy, even over capability.

That design principle would pass the reversibility test. In fact, Google’s position might be represented as:

Capability, even over privacy.

I’m not saying Apple and Mozilla don’t value powerful APIs. I’m not saying Google doesn’t value privacy. I’m saying that Google’s priorities are different to Apple’s and Mozilla’s.

Alas, Alex is saying that Apple and Mozilla don’t value capability:

There is a contingent of browser vendors today who do not wish to expand the web platform to cover adjacent use-cases or meaningfully close the relevance gap that the shift to mobile has opened.

That’s very disappointing. It’s a cheap shot. As cheap as saying that, given Google’s business model, Chrome wouldn’t want to expand the web platform to provide better privacy and security.

Unity

It’s official. Microsoft’s Edge browser is running on the Blink rendering engine and it’s available now.

Just over a year ago, I wrote about my feelings on this decision:

I’m sure the decision makes sound business sense for Microsoft, but it’s not good for the health of the web.

The importance of browser engine diversity is beautifully illustrated (literally) in Rachel’s The Ecological Impact of Browser Diversity.

But I was chatting to Amber the other day, and I mentioned how I can see the theoretical justification for Microsoft’s decision …even if I don’t quite buy it myself.

Picture, if you will, something I’ll call the bar of unity. It’s a measurement of how much collaboration is happening between browser makers.

In the early days of the web, the bar of unity was very low indeed. The two main browser vendors—Microsoft and Netscape—not only weren’t collaborating, they were actively splintering the languages of the web. One of them would invent a new HTML element, and the other would invent a completely different element to do the same thing (remember abbr and acronym). One of them would come up with one model for interacting with a document through JavaScript, and the other would come up with a completely different model to the same thing (remember document.all and document.layers).

There wasn’t enough collaboration. Our collective anger at this situation led directly to the creation of The Web Standards Project.

Eventually, those companies did start collaborating on standards at the W3C. The bar of unity was raised.

This has been the situation for most of the web’s history. Different browser makers agreed on standards, but went their own separate ways on implementation. That’s where they drew the line.

Now that line is being redrawn. The bar of unity is being raised. Now, a number of separate browser makers—Google, Samsung, Microsoft—not only collaborate on standards but also on implementation, sharing a codebase.

The bar of unity isn’t right at the top. Browsers can still differentiate in their user interfaces. Edge, for example, can—and does—offer very sensible defaults for blocking trackers. That’s much harder for Chrome to do, given that Google are amongst the worst offenders.

So these browsers are still competing, but the competition is no longer happening at the level of the rendering engine.

I can see how this looks like a positive development. In fact, from this point of view, Mozilla are getting in the way of progress by having a separate codebase (yes, this is a genuinely-held opinion by some people).

On the face of it, more unity sounds good. It sounds like more collaboration. More cooperation.

But then I think of situations where complete unity isn’t necessarily a good thing. Take political systems, for example. If you have hundreds of different political parties, that’s not ideal. But if you only have one political party, that’s very bad indeed!

There’s a sweet spot somewhere in between where there’s a base of level of agreement and cooperation, but there’s also plenty of room for disagreement and opposition. Right now, the browser landscape is just about still in that sweet spot. It’s like a two-party system where one party has a crushing majority. Checks and balances exist, but they’re in peril.

Firefox is one of the last remaining representatives offering an alternative. The least we can do is support it.

Browsers

Microsoft’s Edge browser is going to switch its rendering engine over to Chromium.

I am deflated and disappointed.

There’s just no sugar-coating this. I’m sure the decision makes sound business sense for Microsoft, but it’s not good for the health of the web.

Very soon, the vast majority of browsers will have an engine that’s either Blink or its cousin, WebKit. That may seem like good news for developers when it comes to testing, but trust me, it’s a sucky situation of innovation and agreement. Instead of a diverse browser ecosystem, we’re going to end up with incest and inbreeding.

There’s one shining exception though. Firefox. That browser was originally created to combat the seemingly unstoppable monopolistic power of Internet Explorer. Now that Microsoft are no longer in the rendering engine game, Firefox is once again the only thing standing in the way of a complete monopoly.

I’ve been using Firefox as my main browser for a while now, and I can heartily recommend it. You should try it (and maybe talk to your relatives about it at Christmas). At this point, which browser you use no longer feels like it’s just about personal choice—it feels part of something bigger; it’s about the shape of the web we want.

Jeffrey wrote that browser diversity starts with us:

The health of Firefox is critical now that Chromium will be the web’s de facto rendering engine.

Even if you love Chrome, adore Gmail, and live in Google Docs or Analytics, no single company, let alone a user-tracking advertising giant, should control the internet.

Andy Bell also writes about browser diversity:

I’ll say it bluntly: we must support Firefox. We can’t, as a community allow this browser engine monopoly. We must use Firefox as our main dev browsers; we must encourage our friends and families to use it, too.

Yes, it’s not perfect, nor are Mozilla, but we can help them to develop and grow by using Firefox and reporting issues that we find. If we just use and build for Chromium, which is looking likely (cough Internet Explorer monopoly cough), then Firefox will fall away and we will then have just one major engine left. I don’t ever want to see that.

Uncle Dave says:

If the idea of a Google-driven Web is of concern to you, then I’d encourage you to use Firefox. And don’t be a passive consumer; blog, tweet, and speak about its killer features. I’ll start: Firefox’s CSS Grid, Flexbox, and Variable Font tools are the best in the business.

Mozilla themselves came out all guns blazing when they said Goodbye, EdgeHTML:

Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.

Tim describes the situation as risking a homogeneous web:

I don’t think Microsoft using Chromium is the end of the world, but it is another step down a slippery slope. It’s one more way of bolstering the influence Google currently has on the web.

We need Google to keep pushing the web forward. But it’s critical that we have other voices, with different viewpoints, to maintain some sense of balance. Monocultures don’t benefit anyone.

Andre Alves Garzia writes that while we Blink, we lose the web:

Losing engines is like losing languages. People may wish that everyone spoke the same language, they may claim it leads to easier understanding, but what people fail to consider is that this leads to losing all the culture and way of thought that that language produced. If you are a Web developer smiling and happy that Microsoft might be adopting Chrome, and this will make your work easier because it will be one less browser to test, don’t be! You’re trading convenience for diversity.

I like that analogy with language death. If you prefer biological analogies, it’s worth revisiting this fantastic post by Rachel back in August—before any of us knew about Microsoft’s decision—all about the ecological impact of browser diversity:

Let me be clear: an Internet that runs only on Chrome’s engine, Blink, and its offspring, is not the paradise we like to imagine it to be.

That post is a great history lesson, documenting how things can change, and how decisions can have far-reaching unintended consequences.

So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.

If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.

And it’s not likely to be replaced.