Why Opera Sold Its Soul, Ditched Presto and Adopted WebKit

Apple's ban on pure web browsers forced Opera to take this desperate measure

By on January 19th, 2013 13:21 GMT

Opera is getting ready to launch yet another mobile browser, its third. Opera Ice is a brand new product, in all senses of the word. It was built from scratch and it was designed for touch input and gestures from the get-go. It comes with several innovations on the interface and user experience front, but perhaps the biggest change is to the layout engine.

For the first time in its history, Opera didn't use a home-built layout engine, but a borrowed one, ditching Presto for the popular, for better and for worse, WebKit.

That's the most significant change in Opera Ice, not just from a technology point of view, but also as a symbol. Opera has never had much of a market share on the desktop and it's Opera Mini, not a full-fledged browser, that's the most popular on mobile devices.

Opera has always been small, but it's been an important player in shaping the web

But the browser maker has always been considered one of the big five, along with Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple and Google. That's because of all the contributions to web standards and web technologies originating from Opera. In fact, Opera is the oldest surviving major browser in existence today.

With its contributions to web standards and its philosophy in general, it made sense to have its own layout engine. Not to mention the fact that there weren't any readily available engines when Opera came about.

It didn't have much market share, but Opera had the pride and the prestige of building its own layout engine. Microsoft has its Trident engine in IE, Mozilla has Gecko, Apple has WebKit, which originated in the KHTML open source project.

The rise of WebKit

When it started working on Chrome though, Google didn't build its own engine, but took Apple's WebKit and started working on it. These days, Google is the biggest contributor to WebKit.

The WebKit engine was also used by Nokia in its early smartphones and it became popular on mobile devices. This carried over when the iPhone was launched, with mobile Safari based on WebKit. The stock Android browser also used it.

Mobile browsers were a minuscule niche only a few years ago, but mobile usage grew so fast that it is no longer possible or wise to ignore it.

The early lead and the cross-platform popularity of WebKit meant that all mobile websites targeting smartphones optimized for WebKit and WebKit alone, from the start.

Even today, with IE on Windows Phone, Firefox for Android and Opera Mobile, the vast, vast majority of mobile websites are built with WebKit in mind and only tested in it.

It may go against the "spirit" of the web, but it's a fact of life, something that all other browser makers are realizing. Mozilla showed a WebKit-based browser prototype last year, also for tablets.

Now, Opera is introducing a cross-platform mobile browser that drops what is perhaps its biggest asset, the Presto layout engine.

Apple doesn't allow full web browsers in the App Store

But it's not just WebKit's popularity with web developers that is driving browser makers to adopt it. Apple doesn't allow web browsers in the App Store, but it does allow applications that rely on the WebKit core bundled with iOS, apps that can act as browsers.

This is why there's no Firefox in the App Store and no Opera either. Opera Mini is there, but Mini is not a web browser in the pure sense.

Even the Google Chrome you see in the App Store is not the same Chrome you get in Android or on the desktop. It still uses WebKit, but the Safari version that comes built into iOS, not Google's version.

Google ditched its own engine to get Chrome in the App Store, so perhaps it shouldn't be that surprising to see Opera do the same.

It's sad that the closed-off nature of the mobile app space forces a WebKit monopoly, but the status quo is not going to change any time soon. Great as WebKit may be, no monopoly has even been healthy.

It may be for the best

All in all, the move may not be so bad, at least not in the short term. Opera Ice doesn't look and feel like anything in the mobile space. Opera wanted to create a browser that felt right on touchscreen devices, that did away with the old UI and UX paradigms, inherited from decades of desktop development, and came up with something completely new.

From the looks if it, Opera managed to do just that. If Ice works as well as it is promised, it could very well be the break that Opera needed. If what it takes for Opera to get the recognition it deserves is to drop Presto, then, perhaps, that's the way it has to be.

Opera Ice is coming next month
   Opera Ice is coming next month
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