Back in the late nineties, located in the same building in Waldemar Thranes street in Oslo, two companies separated by two floors were each and separately forming some of the building bricks that are well known parts of technology and the Internet as we know it today. These two companies were Trolltech and Opera Software. The founders of Trolltech had a background from the software department at a hospital, and the founders of Opera Software were originally from the former telephone monopolist Telenor. The two companies had different starting points, different goals and did not cooperate on their products. And yet, these two companies might just have gone into the history as the two largest successes in software export from Norway.
Trolltech started out as Quasar Technologies, they've also been known as Qt Technologies and today they're called Digia, Qt. The Qt Development Frameworks is their product, and yes, if you've heard of "Qt" at all, this is it. This is the framework that the KDE desktop environment is built upon, and Qt and KDE has remained closely linked for all these years.
Opera Software is primary known for it's Opera web browsers, with three main product classes. The first is Opera desktop web browser, which I have been using as my preferred web browser on desktop for a decade and a half. But in numbers of users, the two other products are larger; Opera Mobile and Opera Mini. These are installed on a huge number of cell phones around the world, and Opera Software specialized in shrinking the data traffic to make cell phones download content faster and cheaper than the other cell phone browsers. The current numbers say that they have 300 million active users per month.
Opera built it's browser from scratch, and were heavily invested in web standards. Have you heard of CSS? Look up Håkon Wium Lie, Opera's current CTO. He's pretty much the father of CSS, and an Opera employee since 1999. For all these years Opera has been fighting the browser giants poorly implemented standard support and poorly developed web pages that would only work on current versions of the largest two web browser at the time. Remember when Netscape committed suicide by making a browser (Netscape 6) that supported standards but not code made for their own proprietary features from Netscape 4? Netscape was a king on the net, but killed itself for our common best. Opera was never a king, but they always did as Netscape, they always strived to make the web a place for web standards and not proprietary features. For all these years, they fought against developers that would only serve code to a limited number of browser, that would write different code for different parsing engines, that would neglect code standards and just code whatever they got to work in their preferred browsers.
Not any more.
In a different and yet surprisingly related story, Lars Knoll of KDE were also working on developing a web browser. It started out as a fork of the "KDE HTML Widget", built by Torben Weis and Martin Jones. This browser was completely rewritten for KDE 2.0, and like Opera, the new browser introduced CSS and internationalization beyond what Mozilla had at the time. This was mostly done in 1999 and 2000. Lars Knoll, who joined Trolltech in 2000, is today still with Digia as Qt Chief Architech. He's best known as the father of KHTML.
KHTML remains the HTML layout engine of KDE, and is used by the Konqueror web browser. That's however not what it's best known for. It's best known for being the basis for WebKit.
Apple approached KDE in 2001, and started porting KHTML to OS/X. During this process, the Apple developers introduced elements of change that the developers of KDE could not accept, some OS X specific, most undocumented, and Apple pressed for using NDAs with the KHTML developers, and kept the forked code away from the public for extended periods of time. As the cooperation failed, KHTML was forked and Apple pressed forward with WebKit. WebKit was then implemented in the Safari Web Browser, released January 2003. As late as 2005, Apple announced they were OpenSourcing WebKit, as only parts were OpenSource up until then.
In 2008, Google released a freeware (not OpenSource) web browser named Chrome. Parts of Chrome were released as an OpenSource project named Chromium, which can be considered a web browser source code that Chrome versions are built upon. Chrome and Chromium are based on WebKit, and Chrome is today one of the largest, if not the largest web browsers. With this, WebKit has today become the largest of all layout rendering engines, with 40% coverage, more than both Firefox's Gecko Engine and Internet Explorer's Trident engine.
In 2013, the story and work from these two Norwegian software pioneers with a common background join up at last. Opera announces that they are dropping their own rendering engine and switching to the KHTML-derivatives WebKit and Chromium. Since 1995, they have been building their own rendering engines, but as of this year, this has come to an ending. They've had enough of struggling against code made specifically to not work with their browser, they've had enough with not being allowed access on the Iphone market, they want to move resources away from developing, optimizing and testing the core engine and over onto focusing on innovating, adding new features and working on the parts that separates Opera from the other web browsers.
I can see how this makes sense. Even so, as a web developer and user I find it's a sad thing to see the end of the Opera Browser as an independent web browser alternative.
I find it hard to look at an Opera built on top of Chromium as anything but a Chrome shell, even if they should continue to keep the UI as different as it has traditionally been. I have always considered the Opera browser a smarter and more agile browser than Internet Explorer and Firefox, and compared to Chrome, more finished and with a better set of features for my preference. I fear they will loose a lot of their soul and following in the next transformation. I might however be wrong, because as Opera say, they can now route more resources into innovating. Also, we're already seeing effects as they're going to be a big contributor to fixing up WebKit and Chromium. So, who knows what this means for me as a user of both Opera and Chrome.
Another thing that bothers me is that I feel that this is a step back in time. Especially as Firefox is losing it's edge, things now look more and more like the early days of the web. Back then developers had two large fractions to code for. If Internet Explorer follows up and joins the WebKit platform too, or if Firefox keeps lagging behind, I know with conviction that web developers will fall back into the laziness that haunted the web around year 2000 when people coded for Internet Explorer 5.5 and 6.0, with a few lines of Netscape 4 compatibility hacks and said "screw it" when it came to supporting the rest of the market. As it is, I have to hope that both Firefox and even Internet Explorer is kept as separate rendering platforms with large followings, because I remember how bad things can be without competition.
Either way, this marks a clear end of an era. Opera Software has been building web page rendering engines from 1995 till 2013. That's a long stretch. I'm sad to see it end. I've been using their browsers for the majority of this time, and I will still use it as it's not really the rendering engine that makes up the user experience. But I am certain this means Opera will be less influential when it comes to implementing standards, and that's one of the things I really liked about them. I think Opera will lose desktop users from now on.
I feel like a favored tool just broke and it can't be replaced.
Reading: A Voyage to Arcturus, from the Gutenberg Project