How will a Microsoft opensource-based browser affect developers and consumers?

You may have heard the rumors going around that Microsoft is considering switching Internet Explorer’s rendering engine to WebKit, the opensource rendering engine used in Safari and Chrome, and wondered how this could affect us as developers and consumers of web applications. Regardless of whether or not this rumor has any basis, Microsoft has certainly changed its attitude quite a bit with respect to software development and open source.

Microsoft is reacting much more quickly to emerging web standards, doing things like supporting cloud-friendly licenses for its operating systems and server software, as well as creating a roadmap for its own cloud computing platform, Azure. It’s also becoming more involved in the open source community, to the extent that the latest versions of ASP.NET will standardize on jQuery for advanced scripting instead of developing their own propietary JavaScript framework.

For developers, switching to Webkit means that there are two main rendering engines to contend with, the other being Mozilla’s Firefox and both are open source projects. This gives us a lot of flexibility and options for creating third party APIs, just as Adobe has integrated WebKit into AIR and provided a whole new API for accessing that. This also could mean that client side Javascript may become more standardized, and the need for ugly code branching would be diminished. In summary, the issues we encounter on a daily basis including the following become much easier to deal with:

  • Rendering differences
  • Javascript incompatibility
  • Inconsistent event models
  • Browser-based testing

For consumers, this means that there is another major supporter for WebKit, which will continue to drive innovation as well as create competition so that Firefox, Opera, and others continue to evolve their browsers as well. Consumers also benefit from:

  • Faster and more robust Javascript engine
  • Less discrepencies between different browsers
  • Faster introduction of new features

So if this is a win-win situation for everyone what is stopping such a browser from being released by Microsoft? Well besides the business decisions involved, I’m pretty sure that the tight integration of IE with Windows and other Microsoft products will be a huge factor in how this can actually be implemented. It’s not easy to change such a critical part of a product’s technology without breaking things all over the place, even with extensive testing and development resources.