Big news for the web today: Google has announced that it's going to stop using WebKit as the rendering engine that's behind displaying web pages in Chrome. Instead, it's forking WebKit to create its own rendering engine, called "Blink." The move, Google says, is to speed up development on Chrome thanks to reducing complexity. Chrome uses some slightly different processes for making web pages load (a "multi-process architecture," which helps keep your other tabs running when a web page crashes), and trying to mesh its technical setup with the rest of WebKit — most well known as Apple's rendering engine on Safari — was apparently making things more complicated than they needed to be.
What does this mean for the larger web? That remains to be seen. Firstly, since it's a fork of WebKit, presumably web developers won't need to do too much to support Blink and Chrome — but later on that may change. There are a lot of websites — especially mobile web sites — that specifically target WebKit browsers to the detriment of other browsers like Firefox and Internet Explorer. With this transition, Google is betting that web developers will move away from that specific targeting and move towards a more standard-based approach. Whether web standards can move quickly enough is an open question, but at first blush this looks like it could be good news for Microsoft and Mozilla.
Opera, which just switched to WebKit, is also involved. Opera's Bruce Lawson says that it will be "Opera will be contributing to Blink in the future," and that it will be "the new engine that will power Opera's browsers."
As for what it means for Apple, probably very little in the short term. WebKit, and Safari in particular, are the dominant force in the mobile web and any changes to web pages to support Blink probably won't hurt the way web pages work on Safari. In fact, reducing complication in WebKit, an open source project, could mean that Apple will also be able to develop its projects more quickly.
This was not an easy decision. We know that the introduction of a new rendering engine can have significant implications for the web. Nevertheless, we believe that having multiple rendering engines—similar to having multiple browsers—will spur innovation and over time improve the health of the entire open web ecosystem.
As for other changes, well, we'll need to wait and see what innovations Google is going to build into Blink and Chrome. One hopeful sign on the Google's site describing Blink mentioned "out-of-process iframes," which break up web page rendering into smaller, discrete process. That could allow web apps to act more like native apps and, theoretically, mean that when something within the web page dies (like Flash, for example), it might not bring down the whole page.
Most interesting of all is what this could mean for Google — it currently is trying to gain traction with Chrome OS, which of course is based almost entirely on the Chrome browser. A more powerful rendering engine could mean more powerful and useful apps within Chrome OS.
When will all this nerdy, web-rendering news start affecting consumers? It's not clear yet. Blink appears to be brand new and it will take some time before Chrome switches over to the new rendering engine.