Why Mozilla Matters And Won’t Switch To WebKit

Earlier this week, Opera announced that it would stop working on its own Presto layout engine and switch to WebKit. It’s obvious that the open source WebKit engine currently has a lot of momentum behind it, with Google, Apple and now Opera backing it. As Mozilla’s CTO Brendan Eich wrote last night, however, don’t expect Mozilla to switch engines anytime soon. Mozilla, thanks to its not-for-profit status (something most people are probably not even aware of), has a mission that’s very different from the other vendors.

If Mozilla were a more traditional business, though, Eich admits that “Mozilla would probably have to do what Opera has done. But we’re not just a business, and our desktop share seems to be holding or possibly rising — due in part to the short-term wins we have been able to build on Gecko.”

If WebKit’s momentum continues, our browsers will soon be little more than the Chrome around WebKit. This kind of monoculture can’t be good for the Web and is a reason to cheer on Firefox and even Internet Explorer, no matter how you feel about it. One thing Eich also point out, however, is that “there’s not just one WebKit.” With its eight build systems and various forks (V8, Apple’s Nitro, the iOS version of Safari), graphics back-ends and  network stacks, “web Developers dealing with Android 2.3 have learned this the hard way,” Eich writes.

Technically, using WebKit would also involve significantly larger switching costs for Mozilla than for Opera, Eich argues. Because Opera’s desktop share is relatively low, Eich argues that the switching cost for Opera are also relatively low – but still not “non-trivial.” Mozilla, however, is deeply invested in XUL, it’s own XML-based language for building user interfaces, and losing that in order to switch to WebKit would also involve losing the “the benefits of the rich, broad and deep Firefox Add-ons ecosystem.”

Having its own engine also means Firefox can work on projects like Firefox OS and Firefox for Android. Eich is especially bullish about Servo, the next generation of the Gecko engine Firefox currently uses. He argues that Servo, which will better support multicore CPUs and massively parallel GPUs, is a bit ahead of Apple’s and Google’s work on multi-threading their browsers.

For web developers, Opera’s switch is probably not a huge deal. Because of its small market share, most of them weren’t optimizing their sites for it anyway. Some may even be happy about this switch and it’ss worth having a discussion about whether Mozilla is really as innovative as Eich makes it look in his post (or if it is just following Chrome’s lead). In the end, though, having a robust and diverse browser ecosystem can only help push the web forward.