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Bruce Lawson on Opera’s Move to WebKit

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This morning’s announcement that Opera intends to abandon its Presto rendering engine has left designers and developers with a number of questions. I sent a few over to Opera’s Bruce Lawson to shed a little light on the situation.

So. “Any exciting news in the world of Opera today,” he asked knowingly.

We announced that Opera will switch its rendering engine to WebKit and JavaScript engine to V8 by building on top of Chromium (the open-source browser that powers Google Chrome). We’ve been talking to the WebKit project and some of its contributory organizations for a while, and today we submitted a small but symbolic patch to WebKit that will bring all WebKit browsers’ CSS multicolumn support up to the level we have in Opera’s current proprietary Presto engine.

Opera for desktops, Opera Mobile, and Opera Mini are all moving over to [Chromium] WebKit? Does this mean that -o prefixing is dead-and-buried?

Eventually, yes—I don’t have timescales yet; obviously it’s not a trivial piece of work so there’s lots of testing involved. This change hasn’t happened yet, and Presto-based browsers will remain in the market for a while yet, so our advice is as it’s always been: code to standards and not to browsers, use all vendor prefixes (including the tiny few that we didn’t remove from Presto, and test thoroughly across browsers and devices.

The developer community seems pretty divided on this. Some say we’re moving towards an IE6-style “monoculture,” and some seem to think there’s enough diversity in WebKit implementations themselves that it’s a non-issue. What do you think?

I was initially worried, but it seems to me that WebKit has excellent diversity. And, of course, there is no monolithic WebKit. PPK counted 19 (I believe) on mobile alone. Of course, I have no crystal ball, but the fact that there are disparate, competitive players in WebKit suggests that it’s unlikely to stagnate the way IE6 did. 

…it is also noteworthy how the diversity of the project is increasing, with new players starting to show a significant activity.
Report on the activity of companies in the WebKit project

What impact will this have on web standards? Will this mean Opera has some say in Chromium’s roadmap, or are they more or less beholden to Apple/Google’s decisions now?

We have independence to add (or remove) anything we like from WebKit or Chromium via our fork, but we aim to promote interoperability, not harm it. We have eighteen years of experience making browsers, and have participated in making many standards that are integral to the modern web (Media Queries, HTML5, native video, etc.) so we have lots of ideas to contribute.

Can we expect radical changes to Opera products within the next version or two, or will it be a more gradual process? I can’t imagine a brand new rendering engine will just drop in clean.

A new version for Android is being demoed at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of the month (come and say hello—I’m the guy with the pink mohawk, stuffed into a cheap suit and uncomfortable shoes). After that I can’t really speak to timescales as I simply don’t know yet.

Will this free up Opera devs to work on new features, now that their primary concern isn’t just maintaining platform parity?

Yes—that’s the reason for doing it. We have a great reputation for inventing things that have been widely copied and have improved the consumer experience of browsing for all—things like Speed Dial, data compression, tabbed browsing, and mouse gestures, and we want to focus on those.

What improvements can we expect with the move to WebKit—accessibility, for example?

I can’t comment on individual features of future products. But you can be sure that I’ll be fighting to get accessibility improvements in there, just as I’ve fought to get them added to specifications.

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