By Craig Buckler

Opera Switches to the Webkit Rendering Engine

By Craig Buckler

RIP Presto. Opera has announced they are dropping their own HTML rendering engine and switching to Webkit — the one used in Chrome and Safari.

The company had already declared similar intentions for Opera Ice; a new mobile browser with a minimal interface. However, today’s announcement affects all mobile and desktop editions of the browser. There will be a gradual transition as Presto is phased out.

Business Logic

The Opera project started in 1994 and required its own HTML parser — there were few other options. In the early part of the century it became the best engine as Microsoft’s Trident stagnated and Netscape died.

The situation has evolved in recent years and, from a purely commercial perspective, switching to Webkit makes sense. Opera may have 300 million users, but their market share has been dropping and stands at slightly over 1% according to the latest StatCounter statistics. While I doubt Presto is at fault, adopting another rendering engine frees resources and allows the company to concentrate on the browser interface, features and marketing. Webkit is open source, so Opera can still influence its development and direction of web standards.

Of course, Opera could have selected Gecko, Trident or any other project, but Webkit is the leading engine on mobile devices and the only option on iOS (Apple do not permit third-party apps which can execute code such as JavaScript).

Fewer Development Headaches?

Many developers will applaud Opera’s decision. Testing should become easier and, from today, there’s little point using -o- prefixes in your CSS and JavaScript. Ironically, Opera had already adopted several -webkit prefixed properties to enforce compatibility for developers who refuse to acknowledge other browsers.

A Small Step Closer to the Monoculture?

It’s a shame to see Presto die. Perhaps I’m being over-sentimental, but it’s a powerful engine and Opera has been responsible for several innovative HTML5 features. It may have struggled to keep pace recently, but Presto differentiated Opera from the competition. I hope Opera doesn’t become just another Webkit clone.

Admittedly, this news would have been considerably more worrying had Microsoft or Mozilla adopted Webkit. We still have three major HTML5 engines but the browser world has lost a little of its color today.

  • Anon

    This is a good thing, now they can focus on improving the actual browser interface and removing the bloat that infects it. If Opera wants market share, they’re going to have to go lightweight and not feature-filled.

    • Is Opera particularly bloated? Many of it’s followers like the power-user features. Personally, I think Dragonfly is great and I hope they can retain it in some way.

      I’m not convinced Opera will increase market share by providing a Chrome-clone.

    • James

      Many years ago – late 90’s maybe early noughties – I was firmly of the opinion that a browser should be a browser, a mail client just that and generally merging software roles was a recipe for bloat and bugs.

      Along came a browser which limited itself to that, and doing it quickly and simply. Firefox was great but over time it added features and widened itself quite a bit. Then Chrome stepped into the space of just browsing. Very good.

      However, before all those, I had discovered Opera. It had e-mail, IRC and other things in as standard and yet a much smaller installer and footprint than supposedly more focussed browsers. I am unashamedly an Opera fan but it certainly isn’t bloated.

    • Stevie D

      I hope not. The main reason that people who use Opera use Opera is because it does everything natively. There are dozens of built-in features that I use daily that are not available in other browsers, or at the very least not without installing memory-hogging extensions and add-ons. It has always been at the forefront of developing new features, that has been its USP. To axe those and turn it into nothing more than a new skin for Chrome, with its total lack of any useful features, would be a criminal waste. Not every browser has to serve the same audience, and Opera’s audience is power-users.

      On my computer (WinXP, so not exactly state of the art), the latest version of Opera runs as quickly as I could hope for, and certainly quicker than Chrome, Firefox or IE.

    • humuu

      The bloat? What bloat? It’s much smaller, way smaller footprint, than these “standalone” browsers like Chrome and Firefox.

  • Liam

    I hope that doesn’t result in Opera running 3 processes per tab like Chrome does.

    Also, Opera is currently the only browser that copes with the “load” I generate (pun-intended). As a web developer, working on many projects, I never have less than 20 tabs open, and frequently have 4 or 5 windows with an average of 20 tabs.

    • Michael

      Hello, I am from Russia.

      Desktop Opera have about 20% of users here, Opera can compete with ad-driven Chrome and Firefox easily, even without any ads.

      I have about 100 tabs often, and dozens of windows.
      And it’s working fine even on netbook with just 2Gb of RAM!

      No one can do it, except Opera. Nor Chrome neither Firefox.

      And you’re did not write enough about that “lazy” designers.
      Most of them are from Google.
      Google services says “Opera is not enough advanced for us, blah blah…”
      But if you will mask Opera as Firefox, all these services working just fine!

      It is the same unfair tactic which Microsoft are using few years ago, they just detecting Opera and giving to Opera especially written bad css.

      What a shame… What a disgusting shame.

  • DDA

    You wrote, “Apple do not permit third-party apps which can execute code such as JavaScript”

    I believe this is false; Chrome is in the store and works fine, AFAIK. What no other app is allowed to do is use Safari’s “compile code to memory and execute it” feature.

    • Chrome on iOS is a Safari skin — as are most other browsers.

      Apple do not permit systems such as run-times, emulators or interpreters which allow the user to execute third-party code. That certainly includes JavaScript so browsers are banned. Opera was previously permitted because it was a version of Opera Mini which doesn’t run JavaScript on the client.

  • James

    My first reaction to this news was “Nooooo” but a fraction of a second later I realised the sense behind it. Unfortunately most of the commenters on the Opera blog post I saw were rabidly assuming that changing engine will turn Opera into Chrome. I’m no browser engineer but I think it’s safe to say that the UI and other features such as M2 will be entirely unaffected and users will not even notice other than having fewer incompatibility issues with various websites.

    One person commented that it’s sad that Presto’s going but not bad. I agree. The only potential issue down the line is a wider one of the implications of less variety in the world of renderers.

  • humuu

    “While I doubt Presto is at fault”

    It isn’t. Lazy designers are. But Opera needs to live in this world of lazy designers.

    They’re constantly patching Presto to fix other people’s mess.

    • I was referring to Opera’s relatively low market share. Presto was often ignored by developers but it rarely caused problems. I’m not convinced people switch away from Opera because of rendering issues. Opera has lost out because there’s far more choice and other vendors have a bigger market clout. I also think the browser can be disorientating for first-time users.

      • humuu

        People did switch away because of compat problems. Why would most people bother to put up with such problems?

  • I love Opera but I never recommend it to a non-technical person because of the problems caused by lazy/ignorant web-designers who think that if it isn’t in their list of browsers it doesn’t exist. I have experienced websites myself which simply don’t work in Opera unless you set it to pretend that it is another browser.
    I isn’t Opera’s fault but hopefully moving to webkit will remove this problem.

    +1 on Dragonfly, I find it the easiest to use of all the built in debuggers, I hope they can keep it in the new webkit version.

    • Stevie D

      To be fair to both Opera and the web community in general, I haven’t found site compatibility to be a major problem for at least five years. Yes, in the days of yore there were plenty of sites that didn’t work properly on Opera, but it’s rare now that I come across anything that requires me to fire up any other browser.

      Yes, it’s a shame to see Presto die, but as Webkit is pretty standards-compliant these days, and with Opera getting on board with its open source development, I don’t think we have too much to worry about there. The main reason I use Opera is for its speed and its vast array of features, rather than its standards-compliance, so as long as it continues to focus on keeping those at the top of the tree then the future looks pretty good.

  • Kenny Landes

    I have always tested in Opera because it is a good browser with a really great rendering engine. It had its own quirks, but stood in the top tier alongside Mozilla and Webkit. It is unfortunate to lose it, and more unfortunate that Microsoft didn’t ditch its own mediocrity in favor of Webkit. (end uninvited MS rant) The main issue I had with Opera was the apparent unending rounds of upgrades every time I started it up, but that was put to rest recently when they introduced background updates similar to Chrome and Firefox. If switching to Webkit makes Opera more viable and increases its market share, then it’s a good move.

  • Now if we could just get MS to do the same, we’d be golden!

  • It is a good move by opera to shift towards webkit.

  • Ben

    That’s a relief. Our stats for opera are less than IE6, which we don’t design for anymore, so good to know we don’t have to worry about opera at all going forward.

  • They are finally getting practical. I’m also a real estate agent who has to use certain web-based tools. They just don’t work in Opera (and academic arguments about how superior it is don’t mean squat). That has always bugged me since I love Opera Mail and want to do everything in one place. Once they do this I can ditch Thunderbird.

  • Edward

    A long time Opera user, I am sorry to hear this piece of news. I of course enjoyed the interface and the innovations of the browser, and honestly believed it was sprightly and one of the fastest browsers around. Besides these two major reasons, I use Opera to test how my HTML pages display in Presto. To test the pages in the other rendering engines, I use Lunascape (Luna), which can display pages side-by-side using the three other engines, Trident, Gecko, and Webkit. Now only one reason remains for holding on to Opera, and that is its interface.

  • ” I hope Opera doesn’t become just another Webkit clone” – I am sorry Craig, I guess it will!!

    • Muuuuh

      How can Opera become a Webkit clone? Webkit is a browser engine. It does not have a UI.

      • By that we mean that all webkit browsers are essentially the same engine with a similar minimalistic look and feel.

      • Muuuuh

        But no one cares about the engine. The user experience is in the UI. Pretending that an entire browser can be Webkit clone is insane.

        Also, a Webkit browser won’t just be a clone. It will actually use Webkit itself, not a clone.

      • OK, but I think we’re getting a little over-analytical here. What I meant is that there may be little to distinguish Opera from all the other browsers out there (especially those which use WebKit).

      • Muuuuh

        There will be as much distinguishing Opera from any other browser as any other browser is distinguished from any other browsers. For example, distinguishing Chrome from Firefox.

        The engine is not relevant there.

        Opera distinguishes itself today, does it not? It does because of the UI. No one gives a crap about the engine.

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