Recently it was announced that Opera would move their browser to WebKit. Formerly powered by the proprietary layout engine Presto, Opera will no longer be so unique; it will join the family of WebKit browsers including Chrome and Safari. This is a substantial change which warrants a general discussion of the different browsers available on the market and their underlying technology.
Though the layout component is usually attached to its flagship browser, it is significant to the extent that the engine is often licensed or re-purposed for use in other products. Furthermore, differences between each layout engine have long presented an unwanted burden to designers, who are often forced to choose between building websites that are compatible with every major browser, or to implement functionality that only works in a specific one. In choosing a web browser, end-users need to weigh support for the latest standards/elements against other concerns like security and performance. Another important factor is what works best or most naturally on the platform, i.e. Windows, Mac OS X (or iOS) or Linux (or Android).
I encourage users to spend some time on each browser to figure out which one they like best. No amount of third-party testing or benchmarks can substitute for real-world usage. Web developers typically prefer WebKit-based browsers like Chrome, because it’s usually the first to explore new features. But what else makes Chrome so attractive? It’s called multi-threading. In Chrome, each tab runs in its own independent process, so if one tab crashes then the rest of your browsing experience is unaffected. By contrast, Firefox runs as one process, so if a plug-in in one tab crashes, let’s say Adobe Flash, then the whole program freezes.
Still, Firefox is a solid and very stable browser, which has benefited from many years of contributions from the free software community. It is reliable and consistently offers a faithful web experience, but there are some functions now that will only render in Chrome, much less Internet Explorer. According to benchmarks, Chrome also has the advantage of faster load times. Market shares of browsers have been in flux since the advent of Mosaic and the era of Netscape. I’ve included a chart with averaged stats from W3Counter, StatCounter and Wikimedia to illustrate the current state of things.