Last week I wrote about the benefits of open standards versus open source. I argued that open standards provide greater protection against vendor lock-in than open source alone. I was reminded of this conclusion when reading Peter-Paul Koch’s analysis of WebKit implementations. Thanks to Palm’s Dion Almaer for pointing out the analysis.

Readers know WebKit as the open source web browser engine used by several mobile and PC web browsers including Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Palm’s WebOS and the Web Browser for Android. In fact, Wikipedia lists 19 browsers that are based on the open source WebKit browser engine. As you read on, keep in mind that there is no standard that vendors using WebKit must adhere to or claim certification against. A WebKit based browser is, well, whatever the vendor wants it to be.

When Koch tested WebKit browser versions on twenty seven tests, he found:

  • Out of 19 tested WebKits, no two are exactly the same.
  • The best WebKit available is Safari 4; the worst is S60v3.
  • The Android G1 and G2 WebKits score rather badly; it’s the worst mobile WebKit except for S60.
  • Regressions are fairly common: iPhone 3.1, Android G2, and S60v5 all (partially) dropped support for something their predecessors did support.
  • The closest relation of a desktop WebKit to a mobile WebKit is between Safari 3.0 and S60v5. I’m now fairly certain S60v5 is actually based on Safari 3.0. Unfortunately this is the single example of such a close relation.

Koch’s testing highlights two truths. First, pity the mobile web application developer whose manager or customer expects that the application will work on multiple mobile browsers that are “built on WebKit”. Second, open source does not make it easier for customers, or their developers, to transition applications from, for example, building for the Google Android platform to, for example, Plam WebOS.

Imagine if there were a WebKit standard and a compliance test suite that vendors had to certify against to use the “WebKit” brand. Customers and developers would gain protection against vendor lock-in that open standards deliver to a much higher degree than open source alone. I’m not naive enough to think that open standards equals “write once, run anywhere”. But even if a WebKit open standard could drive a 50% improvement in compatibility across WebKit-based browsers, that would be something to write home about.

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PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”