Gilles Vandenoostende

Hi, I'm Gilles Vandenoostende - designer, illustrator and digital busybody with a love of language, based in Ghent, Belgium.

Opera's adopting Webkit, and why Microsoft should follow their lead

The Next Web writes:

Opera has announced that its range of Web browsers is now being used by 300 million people each month to navigate the Internet across mobile phones, PCs, tablets and more. The Norwegian firm is marking the milestone with the announcement that it will transition its browsers over to the open-sourced WebKit, in a move that will eventually end the development of its own rendering engine.

A very sensible decision. I’d advise Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team to do the same for a couple of reasons:

1. Webkit is king

Due to the rise of mobile (and your own company’s inability to lead in this domain), Webkit has become the de-facto browser-engine developers are targeting first* before any others. Right now, supporting IE is a pain in the ass (initiatives like modern.ie are little more than a stop-gap solution, since not everyone is willing or able to sacrifice huge chunks of their hard-drive to run all the Windows VM’s just to test their work in IE). As a result, people aren’t going out of their way to support IE any more than they have to (see the whole prefix drama last year).

Let me give an example of what this means: Google’s Chrome experiments website is populated with loads of cool Javascript demos, almost all of which are made by independent web-developers in their spare time, for free. Meanwhile, Microsoft  has to pay companies to make showcase web-apps optimized for Internet Explorer.

Ballmer’s infamous “developers, developers, developers“-schtick clearly hasn’t reached the IE team. They don’t own the web-developer’s hearts and minds, and nothing they can do can win them back (not that they ever owned them to begin with). Switching to Webkit would allow users of IE to reap the benefits of other browsers’ popularity.

And who knows: Maybe with a more level playing field, maybe browsers can start competing on UX and features, rather than on how accurately (or not) they render sites. MS might actually win some people back.

2. Time to play catch-up

Right now, IE is still stuck in an almost archaic 12-18 month release cycle. Both Chrome and Firefox are constantly updated year-round. In the time it takes for IE to go up one version number, Chrome goes up 10. Switching to Webkit would allow Microsoft to make up for a lot of lost time in one fell swoop.

3. People aren’t nostalgic about IE

Switching to Webkit would be a more productive use of time and money than making ads like this. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a glorious ode to the 90′s people of my generation will certainly remember. But while it’s one of the best Microsoft ads I’ve ever seen**, strategically I think it sends the wrong message.

Nostalgia isn’t the right sentiment for promoting a browser that’s already crippled by a dated image. For people to be nostalgic about something, they have to remember liking it in the first place. Same reason you wouldn’t make a nostalgic ad about DOS to promote Windows 8. Maybe I’m an exception, but I remember Netscape Navigator’s spinning globe a lot more fondly than Internet Explorer’s blue “E”.

So to wrap up: good on you Opera. I’m looking forward to what you can contribute to an already great rendering engine.

 

* Some people are weary of this Webkit-dominance, drawing parallels to IE’s dominance in the late 90′s-early 00′s and all the horrors and stagnation that came with it. But Webkit is different because it’s open-source and has multiple stakeholders, including web-native companies like Google. I don’t think any of them are willing to let the web rot like Microsoft was back then.
** That’s not saying much. At least this one doesn’t have scary hard-core schoolgirls.

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