Ah, the “browser wars”: when Internet Explorer was king, ruthlessly snuffing out Netscape until that upstart Firefox rose from its ashes. Meanwhile, Apple’s homegrown Safari browser, first released on January 7, 2003–ten years ago today–never got much market share. But Steve Jobs’ keynote that day also marked the debut of a lesser-known, behind-the-scenes technology called Webkit that would come to utterly dominate the browser market, not leastwise in a space that didn’t even exist in 2003: the mobile web.
Webkit is a rendering engine for web browsers: it reads the HTML and CSS code of a website (say, Technologyreview.com) and “paints” it into the rectangle of your screen as human-readable content. Every web browser has a rendering engine: IE has Trident, Firefox has Gecko. Webkit was forked by Apple from another engine called KHTML, and made open-source in mid-2005. Now it also powers Google Chrome, the browser in Kindle e-readers, and the mobile browsers for iOS, Android, and Blackberry.
Where the old browser wars were won or lost by monolithic products and brands like Internet Explorer, the new mobile browser wars are dominated by this open-source “Oz behind the curtain” that nobody owns. You may use Android or iOS, but on the mobile web, Webkit is the web. And now it’s Microsoft who’s crying uncle–not to the browser-makers at Apple or Google, but to the vast cloud of developers who make the websites themselves. As Ars Technica notes, “the mobile Web is dominated by WebKit-based browsers, and mobile sites tend to be developed exclusively for, and tested exclusively on, WebKit browsers.” If Microsoft wants the mobile web to look good on its phones, it has to give up Trident and go with the Webkit flow, or beg mobile-web developers to adapt their code to accommodate their non-Webkit browser.
Would anyone–even Steve Jobs–have thought that Apple’s little-used desktop browser would become a trojan horse for a back-end technology that would conquer the web ten years hence?
(hat tip to Don Melton.)