Opera's WebKit move gives it shot at iOS market

But don't expect big things, says analyst

Opera's announcement yesterday that it would ditch its own browser and JavaScript engines in favor of the open-source WebKit and V8 engines will let it compete in the lucrative iOS market.

But Opera's CTO maintained that that was just one factor of several that led the company to decide to abandon decades of work.

"It was one of the things we considered," said Hakon Wium Lie in a Wednesday interview. However, he declined to comment on when, or even if, the move to WebKit would lead to an Opera browser that would meet with Apple's approval.

"I'm not going to comment on future products," said Lie, echoing language that Apple executives themselves use when asked about unannounced plans. "And I can't comment on [release] dates because I don't have dates."

Apple maintains a tight hold on iOS by restricting what can, and cannot, be installed on an iPhone or iPad from the App Store. Its rules, for instance, bar third-party browsers that do not rely on Apple's version of WebKit, which powers iOS's default Safari browser.

"Apps that browse the Web must use the iOS WebKit framework and WebKit JavaScript," Apple states in the current version of its App Store guidelines.

Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, said much the same as Lie when asked whether the App Store/iOS factor was a primary reason for Opera's surprising decision.

"This may be one factor," Hilwa acknowledged. "[But] the bigger factors are, one, that hurried developers are increasingly coding to WebKit browsers at the exclusion of others, and two, it is more cost-effective for Opera to absorb all the open-source work in WebKit and Chromium, instead of having to re-invent the wheel every day."

Still, Opera will essentially have the same opportunities in iOS as Google's Chrome does now: The Norwegian browser maker will dump its Presto rendering engine and Carakan JavaScript engine for Chromium and V8, the open-source engines that now power Chrome.

And Chrome is already in the iOS App Store, having debuted there last June.

To get into the App Store, Google had to take its version of Chrome and essentially "Safari-ize" it by using Apple's browser and JavaScript engines as the foundation. It then added additional features and wrapped a Google-designed user interface (UI) around the package.

Even after a change to the WebKit-based Chromium and Google's V8, Opera would have to do the same to win Apple's approval. And once in the App Store, Opera -- like Chrome -- will have its work cut out for it.

"As most new smartphones have strong built-in browsers, this may be a long-term challenge for Opera," said Hilwa when asked whether the shift to WebKit would give Opera a better chance of competing with much larger rivals like Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari. "However, Opera plays in a variety of other areas that device platforms do not really play at, such as embedded devices."

Chrome has had little success on iOS. January data from Web metrics firm Net Applications, which tracks mobile browser usage, does not even list Chrome 23, the current version for iOS. Meanwhile, Net Application said Safari accounted for 61% of all mobile browser usage.

Opera will demonstrate a WebKit-based Android browser at the Mobile World Congress, which opens on Feb. 25 in Barcelona. "We're all hands on Android right now," Lie said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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