If you were working on the Web in the mid 90s, there is a good chance that you spent many (many) hours tweaking your Web pages to look good in Netscape and IE. It usually meant creating hacks and workarounds that resulted in bloated pages and late nights testing in multiple browsers. Those cross-browser issues are finally being addressed (some 15 years later) by standards-compliant browsers such as Safari and Chrome.

The mobile Web was following a somewhat similar path. Depending on your device or operating system, your mobile Web browsing experience was somewhere between bad and absolutely horrendous. The mobile Web browsing experience dramatically improved in 2007 with Apple’s introduction of the iPhone. It was the first time that the entire Web became usable on a mobile device.

While snazzy iPhone browser features like multi-touch got all of the attention, it was the underlying technology that enabled this new and improved mobile Web experience.

How did Apple do it?

The short answer to how Apple revolutionized the mobile Web browsing experience is WebKit.

WebKit is a rendering engine that Apple derived from the Konqueror browser’s KHTML library. What makes it different from other browser rendering engines is that it is standards-based, open source, and very fast.

It was first used by Apple in its Safari web browser for Mac OS X, but has since been extended by Nokia, Google, and other companies since being open sourced in 2005.

Why does it matter?

WebKit has driven the evolution of the mobile Web by providing a better experience for the end user; however, that’s not the only benefit. Here are several more:

  • Speed: WebKit browsers render Web pages faster than any other browsers on the market.
  • Application support: Adobe Flash Lite, JavaScript, or HTML5
  • Features: CSS animation, XML 1.0 support, and secure encryption
  • Framework: Database, SVG, and local application support
  • Standards compliant: HTML5
  • Support: Large community of contributors

Google shared its love of WebKit during a 2008 press conference for its Chrome browser by talking about its speed. Google compared rendering pages in Internet Explorer, which doesn’t use WebKit, to rending pages in Chrome (see 38:30 in this video for the demo). Chrome loaded pages three times faster than Internet Explorer.

IE rendering speeds are on the left; Chrome rendering speeds are on the right.

Is it only for the iPhone?

Fortunately, WebKit is not limited to the iPhone; in fact, by the end of 2010, just about every major mobile platform, except Windows Phone 7, will use a WebKit-based browser as its default browser. These mobile platforms include:

This means that moving between devices and their different browsers will not result in a different mobile Web experience. This is a huge step forward for mobile Web development and usage.

Instead of time and cost involved in building multiple native apps for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, or Symbian^3, developers can create rich HTML 5 mobile Web experiences rendered in the device’s WebKit-based browser; this allows you to deliver the same code across multiple platforms all at once.

Google’s Gmail “app” on the iPhone is actually just HTML 5 rendered to look like a native iPhone app.

The bottom line

Companies developing mobile operating systems have learned from the mistakes of the 1990s and have chosen to standardize their mobile Web browsers. This is a win-win situation: Developers can make new HTML 5-based “apps” and Web sites more quickly, and consumers can experience a true mobile Web experience.

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