Microsoft, Webkit and Cashing In on Open Source

Earlier this month, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made blogosphere headlines by mentioning that Microsoft might look at embracing Webkit, the open-source Web browser rendering engine that powers Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome.webkit-ballmer.png

I think that a Microsoft move to Webkit—not only for the company’s mobile platforms but for the full-size version of Internet Explorer—makes great sense and would yield dividends for users, for developers and for Microsoft itself.

Rendering Web pages properly is the No. 1 job of a Web browser, and inconsistencies among different browsers can mean bad experiences for users and major hassles for Web developers and designers—who get the treat of papering over these wrinkles.

If Microsoft joined Apple and Google in building its browsers around Webkit, we’d see more consistent rendering among popular browsers and, therefore, happier users and developers.

Now, rendering inconsistencies can be (and, in many cases, certainly have been) viewed as opportunities for user and developer lock-in: Use and develop for Internet Explorer, or we’ll break your tables and send you off to sleep with the phishes.

However, I believe that Microsoft has come to understand that pursuing competitive differentiation through standards chicanery is no way to win customers and partners—especially not on the Web.

Microsoft’s decision to ship IE 8 in a standards-compliant-by-default mode, with the option of switching over to “old IE” mode as a second option, is a good sign, as is the thoroughly HTTP- and XML-based make-up of the company’s new Azure cloud platform.

Now, if a browser engine that “renders different” is a clear liability instead of a competitive advantage, then what’s the point of Microsoft paying to develop and maintain one?

Microsoft can devote its IE rendering engine resources toward improving and extending the up-stack, differentiation-bearing parts of IE.

Yes, Webkit is open-source software, but the project’s LGPL license permits its use in proprietary applications, so using Webkit won’t force Microsoft to open source anything.

Microsoft would get to allocate its resources more efficiently, demonstrate that its open-source talk is in earnest, help assure greater rendering consistency for users and make life easier for developers.

And Webkit should only be the beginning. There are a lot of open-source component resources out there, and such pieces that can take care of business for Microsoft while enabling the company to maintain healthy differentiation deserve a hard look.