Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

John Pavlus

A View from John Pavlus

The Mobile Browser Wars Began 10 Years Ago Today

When Apple debuted the Webkit rendering engine in its Safari browser, it had no idea it would take over the internet.

  • January 7, 2013

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.)

Be the leader your company needs. Implement ethical AI.
Join us at EmTech Digital 2019.

Register now
More from Connectivity

What it means to be constantly connected with each other and vast sources of information.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.