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10 February 2012, 10:07

WebKit dominance threatens the open web

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WebKit art

Apparently, the browser developers at Mozilla, Microsoft and Opera plan to support CSS properties which are specific to WebKit browsers. A message from Daniel Glazman, the co-chair of the W3C's CSS working group, has caused commotion in the web standards community as it calls for this not to happen for fear that it will cause a re-run of IE6's dominance, but this time with WebKit and the mobile web.

Experimental CSS properties are marked with a "vendor prefix" such as -moz-, -ms-, -o- or, in this case, -webkit-. These prefixes are designed to ensure that there are no problems with different implementations of experimental properties and, when a particular property has been standardised, the vendor prefixed versions should only exist for backwards compatibility, if at all. However, in recent times the browser market has shifted significantly towards WebKit-based browsers, which include Chrome, Safari and almost all popular mobile browsers. In addition, Google in particular has been introducing new web technologies at an enormous pace, causing many new CSS features to make their debut with a -webkit- prefix.

As a consequence of this and the dominance of WebKit on mobile devices, many web designers have used new CSS properties using only the -webkit- prefix, even when the property is available on other browsers with a different prefix and name. This lack of care excludes the users of other browsers from accessing the latest design features. Many properties that used to be experimental have also been available without a prefix. One example of the problem is the Sencha Animator tool, described as "for every mobile platform", which only supported WebKit until the developers recently added support for Mozilla browsers.

Glazman compares the situation to the former market dominance of IE6 and says that the planned -webkit- property support in other browsers would pervert the idea of vendor prefixes. In an unusually dramatic appeal entitled "The open web needs you now", the co-chair has called on web designers to stop creating sites that are exclusively suitable for WebKit and suggested that they update their sites. He has also asked the web design community to stop recommending web sites that only work in one single browser engine.

Numerous web standard activists and pioneers – including Aaron Gustafsson and Rachel Andrew from the Web Standards Project, Mozilla evangelist Chris Heilmann, accessibility expert and Opera employee Bruce Lawson, developer Remy Sharp, and designer Gilles Vandenoostende – support Glazman's appeal.

A project called Pre-fix the web has been set up to encourage developers to find open source projects on GitHub which only use -webkit- prefixes, fork the project and fix its CSS properties by adding missing prefixes and ensuring the JavaScript on the project uses proper feature detection. Eleven projects have already been Pre-Fixed.


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