Creating some consternation in the Web development community, Opera Software is switching from a home-built rendering engine to the more widely used open-source WebKit, now employed in the Apple Safari and Google Chrome browsers.
"It makes more sense to have our experts working with the open source communities ... rather than developing our own rendering engine further," said Opera Chief Technology Officer Håkon Wium Lie in a statement. The company also plans to use portions of Google's Chromium experimental Web browser project.
Rendering engines, also called layout engines, are an essential component of browsers. They render the source code provided to the browser as a finished Web page. WebKit started as KDE Software's KHTML, the open-source rendering engine for the Konqueror browser and file manager.
Although never as widely used as Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, the Opera browser now has 300 million monthly users, the company recently announced. First developed as a browser that required relatively minimal computer resources, Opera today is perhaps most widely found in Android and Apple iOS devices, as well as in other phones and Internet-connected consumer electronic devices.
Not everyone is pleased with the move from Opera's previous rendering engine, Presto. "The big loss for the Web is a further decrease in the diversity of browser engines, especially on mobile devices," wrote Mozilla developer Robert O'Callahan in a blog post. He noted that there are now only two other rendering engines in widespread use other than WebKit, namely Microsoft's Trident and Mozilla's Gecko.
An Opera employee who posts online under the name "Haavard" downplayed concerns of an emerging layout-engine monoculture, however. "While different browsers are competing with each other, the Web is actually competing with native applications," he wrote in a blog post that announced the release. "The Web may not be fully open, but it is far more open than the closed world of [apps]. If moving to WebKit allows Opera to gain more power and strengthen the browser as an open application platform, it will benefit the now semi-open Web in the competition against fully closed apps."
Opera plans to redirect its layout-engine developers to contribute to WebKit. They have already started making improvements in the way multicolumn layouts can be rendered.
"Not only will [switching to WebKit] free up significant engineering resources at Opera and allow us to do more innovation instead of constantly trying to adapt to the Web, but our users should benefit from better site compatibility and more innovative features and polish," Haavard wrote.