3 Mar 2009 company   » (Master)

browsing in GNOME

This is a loose follow up to GNOME and the cloud. You might want to read that post first.

There are 2 ways to provide access to the web for GNOME. One is to integrate into an existing framework. The other is to write our own. I think I can safely ignore the “write our own browser” option without anyone complaining.
I know 2 Free projects providing a web browsing framework that we could try to integrate into GNOME: Webkit and Mozilla. I’ve recently talked to various people trying to figure out what the best framework to use would be. As it turns out, there is no simple answer. In fact, I didn’t even succeed in coming to an opinion for myself, so I’ll discuss the pros and cons of both options and let you form your own opinion.

current browser usage in GNOME

GNOME’s web browsing applications currently use a Mozilla bridge (epiphany, yelp, devhelp) or the custom gtkhtml library (evolution). However, none of these are actively developed any more, because roughly a year ago we started to switch to Webkit, trying to build the webkit-gtk library. This switch has not been completed. It was originally scheduled to be delivered with GNOME 2.26, but has been postponed to GNOME 2.28.
It should also be noted that vendors shipping GNOME mostly ignore the GNOME browser epiphany and ship Firefox instead, which is based on Mozilla. There is no indication that this will change soon.

Mozilla and Webkit in a nutshell

Mozilla is a foundation trying to Free the web. Most of the work done by the foundation’s members is focused on the Firefox web browser, which ensures that it is very cross-platform by shipping almost all functionality required internally, including their own UI toolkit. A smaller side-project is XULRunner, which aims to provide the framework Firefox uses for integrating into other applications. It is not related to GNOME in any way.

Webkit is a fork of KDE’s KHTML browser engine by Apple for creating the Safari browser and adding web functionality to their desktop. It is also used by Google Chrome and various other projects (Nokia S60 browser, Adobe AIR, Qt).
It only contains a web browsing component and a Javascript interpreter and requires the backends to provide integration into their platform. Among other things a rendering library, a network layer and an API to successfully write an application are required. The webkit-gtk project aims to provide this for GNOME.

development drivers

Mozilla’s development is driven in large part by employees of the Mozilla Corporation, which was founded and is owned by the Mozilla Foundation to develop the Firefox browser as its sole purpose.
Webkit’s core has been developed in large part by Apple after forking from KHTML. Other browsers built on it have usually been forks of the Webkit codebase. Recently this changed when the Google Chrome and Nokia Qt teams started to merge their code back into the Webkit codebase and started to base their work on top of Webkit directly. I do expect to see more formalization of the government model during the next year, though I have not seen any indication of this yet.


Both Mozilla and Webkit have an active development community that is roughly the size of GNOME (that’s estimated, I could be off by a factor of 2-5). A lot of them are open source developers. Members of the different projects know each other well; they hang out on the same IRC channels and mailing lists. A lot of the current Webkit developers have been former Mozilla contributors.
Mozilla has also managed to gain respect in the web development community, both by FIXME sponsoring development of FIXME web tools and by FIXME creating channels of communication with them. Add-On development is a strong focus, too. Mozilla encourages development of FIXME sophisticated FIXME customizations to drive the browser. Last but not least they are FIXME reaching out to end users directly. As a result, Mozilla and in particular Firefox have become strong brands.
In Webkit country, outreach to web developers and end users is done by the browser vendors themselves. Google and Apple are well known brands themselves and market their browsers using FIXME traditional FIXME channels. As such, the FIXME name Webkit itself is relatively unknown and attracts relatively few external contributors from the web and add-on development communities. However, Webkit encourages porting the core for different purposes and as such attracts FIXME a lot of browser developers, including the webkit-gtk port.

compatibility with the Web

Mozilla probably has 20-30% of the world-wide market share, Webkit has 5-15%. Both numbers are big enough to ensure that websites test for the browsers, so that in general, websites should work.
However, no website will check for GNOME, so all features that are provided by us will not be tested. This means that all features we maintain exclusively for GNOME can cause issues if they don’t work exactly the same way as in the other backends. And from Swfdec development I know that this is incredibly hard to achieve, as it does not only require an identical featureset, but also identical performance characteristics. This is less of a problem in Mozilla, where the GNOME-specific code is pretty small, but might become a big problem in Webkit, where a lot of code is solely written for the GNOME backend.


First a note: This point is subjective, you are free to have a differing opinion. If you do, please explain yourself in the comments.

Both browsers implement a similar set of features. I don’t know of a single (non-testcase) website that provides reduced functionality in either of the browsers. Still, the codebases are very different. Mozilla is a pretty old codebase that grew into what it is today and while there were some attempts to clean it up at times, there is still a lot of cruft around and it is easily the bigger size. I know lots of GNOME hackers that use Mozilla code as an example for scary code. On the other hand, Mozilla makes up for this by providing a lot of small niceties that Webkit does not provide and that make for a smoother experience in general. An example is kerning between tags: AVAVA (In Mozilla, the A and V letters will overlap, in Webkit they won’t). Another example I know is windowless browser plugins.
Webkit in general is simpler, more compact and easier to understand code. I attribute this to KHTML being newer and focussing on maintainability and clarity. This shows when Webkit is able to show excellent performance. However, this quality is not always true. Parts that are not maintained by the core team are often very ad-hoc, lack design and bitrot easily. In short, everything out of the ordinary can be very ugly. Also, I am not sure if the old goals are still held in the same high esteem by the current maintainers. Code quality doesn’t sell after all.

code handling

Mozilla is written in C++ and uses a heavily customized version of autotools as the build system. The source code is since recently kept in Mercurial, older branches still use CVS. Webkit uses Subversion with an official mirror in git. The core is written in C++. Each port adds its own build system and API on top; Apple Webkit for example uses Objective C and Xcode, webkit-gtk uses Gobject-style C and autotools.
Both Webkit and Mozilla use a review process where all features and bug fixes have an attached bug in the respective bugzillas (Webkit and Mozilla) and all patches need to be reviewed by at least one reviewer. Webkit uses buildbots to check that the various ports and branches still compile. It pales in comparison to Mozilla’s extensive QA that also includes performance regression testing and important policies that govern checkins.
Releases in Mozilla are handled centrally, all Firefox ports are released with a common release number at the same time. This is built on top of a core branch, which other projects built on Mozilla (Camino, Epiphany) use. This allows an easy matching of browser version to feature availability. Webkit projects releases are not coordinated between different ports, and contain their own branches. so Safari, Chrome, webkit-gtk and Webkit master may all support different features.

initial work required to integrate

The next two paragraphs again are heavily subjective. They assume that GNOME wanted to include a library for integrating the web.

For Webkit, work is being done to integrate GNOME. The problem is that a lot of base libraries are required that do not exist today. So not only does webkit-gtk still need to gain basic features, it also requires testing all the new code excessively for conformance to standards, stability, security and performance. None of this is being done today.
Were such a library to be based on Mozilla, much less code would need to be written. However, a lot of integration work would need to be done, so that GNOME had proper access to the library functions (like for manipulating the DOM, http access or the Javascript interpreter). A lot more work would be needed to convince the Mozilla developers to support such a stable API, as currently Mozilla does not guarantee stability on any internal APIs and even add-ons have to be adapted for every major Firefox release.

Regardless of which project were to be chosen, my expectation would be that if we were to start now, it would take 5 experienced GNOME developers roughly a year to get this work to a point were it would hold up against todays requirements of the web. For Webkit, this would mostly require writing source code. For Mozilla, both writing code and evangelizing inside their community would be necessary.

predicted maintenance required once project is running

If the project in the above paragraph were done today, continuous maintenance of this library would be required. Not only for bugfixing and adding features, but also to keep up with the constant change in the browser cores, which refactor for performance and security or add new features for new web standards. I’d expect the current GNOME browser team to be able to do this.
However, we would need to build up respect in the browser community, both for ensuring our work was still necessary and for driving change in the browser’s core and the standards community to help our goals. Currently no GNOME developer that I know participates in any W3C working group. This would likely require people working on this project full-time, as respect is usually concentrated towards single people. Also, contributing to the core requires knowledge of not only the large code base, but also keeping up with the multiple different ports. I don’t see any developer of GNOME doing this currently.

view towards GNOME

Mozilla and Webkit developers pretty much share their opinion about GNOME: It doesn’t matter. This has two reasons. The first reason is that it doesn’t have a significant enough market share for them to be interesting. Even though they target the Linux desktop, none of the browsers target GNOME in particular, as they try to ship a browser that works everywhere on Linux, like KDE or CDE.
The second and more interesting reason is that the browser development communities think desktops are going to die sooner or later and the browser will be the only application that you run on your computer, so developing “desktop stuff” is not in any way interesting to them. Just like the GNOME community treats the web, the web developers treat the desktop.

view towards Free software

Mozilla has it this in their manifesto:

Free and open source software promotes the development of the Internet as a public resource.

This is shown by the Mozilla code being tri-licensed under GPL 2 or later, LGPL 2.1 or later or MPL.
Webkit is de-facto licensed under the LGPL 2 or later, as that is the license of the original KHTML code. New contributions are encouraged under the BSD license, but code licensed as LGPL 2.1 is accepted, too. All Apple and Google contributions are BSD-licensed. However, while the companies follow the letter of those licenses, they don’t follow the spirit. Both Android phones and the iPhone contain a Webkit browser that is not updatable by users.


This is the short version of things I evaluated. In short, Mozilla is the adult browser engine with clearly defined rules and goals, while Webkit is the teenager that is still trying to find its place in the browser world. I don’t know which one would benefit GNOME more, so feel free to tell me in the comments. Also, if you feel things in here are factually wrong, feel free to point them out there or privately.

Syndicated 2009-03-03 21:04:58 from Swfblag

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