Browser Engine Diversity

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We lost Opera when they went Chrome in 2013. Same deal with Edge when it also went Chrome earlier this year. Mike Taylor called these changes a “Decreasingly Diverse Browser Engine World” in a talk I’d like to see.

So all we’ve got left is Chrome-stuff, Firefox-stuff, and Safari-stuff. Chrome and Safari share the same lineage but have diverged enough, evolve separately enough, and are walled away from each other enough that it makes sense to think of them as different from one another.

I know there are fancier words to articulate this. For example, browser engines themselves have names that are distinct and separate from the names of the browsers.

Take Chrome, which is based on the open-source project Chromium, which uses the rendering engine Blink and the JavaScript engine V8.

Firefox uses Gecko as its browser engine, which is turning into Quantum, which has sub-parts like Servo for CSS and rendering.

Safari uses WebKit as a browser engine, which has parts like WebCore and JavaScriptCore.

It’s all kinda complicated and I’m not even sure I quite understand it all. My brain just thinks of it as everything under the umbrella of the main browser name.

The two extremes of looking at this from the perspective of decreasing diversity:

  • This is bad. Decreased diversity may hinder ecosystems from competing and innovating.
  • This is good. Cross-engine problems are a major productivity loss for the world. Getting down to one ecosystem would be even better.

Whichever it is, the ship has sailed. All we can do is look forward.

Random thoughts:

  • Perhaps diversity has just moved scope. Rather than the browser engines themselves representing diversity, maybe forks of the engnies we have left can compete against each other. Maybe starting from a strong foundation is a good place to start innovating?
  • If, god forbid, we got down to one browser engine, what happens to the web standards process? The fear would be that the last-engine-standing doesn’t have to worry about interop anymore and they run wild with implementations. But does running wild mean the playing field can never be competitive again?
  • It’s awesome when browsers compete on features that are great for users but don’t affect web standards. Great password managers, user protection features, clever bookmarking ideas, reader modes, clean integrations with payment APIs, free VPNs, etc. That was Opera’s play, and now we see many more in the same vein. Vivaldi is all about customization, Brave doubles down on privacy and security, and Puma is about monetization.

Brian Kardell wrote about some of this stuff recently in his “Beyond Browser Vendors” post. An interesting point is that the remaining browser engines are all open source. That means they can and do take outside contributions, which is exactly how CSS Grid came to exist.

Most of the work on CSS Grid in both WebKit and Chromium (Blink) was done, not by Google or Apple, but by teams at Igalia.

Think about that for a minute: The prioritization of its work was determined in 2 browsers not by a vendor, but by an investment from Bloomberg who had the foresight to fund this largely uncontroversial work.

And now, that idea continues:

This isn’t a unique story, it’s just a really important and highly visible one that’s fun to hold up. In fact, just in the last 6 months engineers as Igalia have worked on CSS Containment, ResizeObserver, BigInt, private fields and methods, responsive image preloading, CSS Text Level 3, bringing MathML to Chromium, normalizing SVG and MathML DOMs and a lot more.

What we may have lost in browser engine diversity we may gain back in the openness of browser engines and outside players stepping up.