Way back in the day, I used to compare web standards to text file formats and browsers to word processors. The analogy was that in the early days of word processors, they competed on features and file formats — WordPerfect has its own format, WordStar had its own, Word its own, and on and on. Then, over time, they all converged on supporting a small(ish) number of common formats and competed on features. And so it would be for browsers, I would say, back in those days.
Well, so it was. But there was another stage to the analogy that I didn’t bring up because it seemed to so remote, back then: that one of the browsers would start to gobble up or kill off its competitors, as MS Word did in the word processor space. Sure, there are still alternatives, but how many people use them?
You can argue that this sort of consolidation is inevitable. You can argue that it has benefits that outweigh the drawbacks, and vice versa. Certainly having a de facto word processor made publishers’ lives easier in many ways, even if it disrupted life for authors who had invested in other-than-de-facto programs. It made life easier for people who wanted to extend the word processing space by writing extensions, helpers, and other tools. And it definitely made life easier for the Office team, which could proceed to add whatever feature they liked without having to worry overmuch about interoperability with others. (It was, obviously, up to others to be interoperable with them.)
This is the lens through which I view Opera’s announcement that they will migrate to WebKit. Actually, that’s not true: it’s one of the lenses. I also remember the first browser wars, and the calls to have all browsers just use Trident, the engine in IE5 and IE6. It was dominant, after all, and as good as or better than all its competitors, blessed with great resources and smart developers. I find myself peering through that lens as well.
There are parallels and divergences, of course: no analogy is ever perfect and no two events are identical. We could argue about how this is exactly like or not like a decade ago, how this is precisely like or not like the word processor market, and some of us will. No matter where you fall, of course, the Opera migration to WebKit and the sunset of Presto is going to happen. As once was said: The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.
To which I would add: in this case the pebbles have already voted, have been voting for years now, and their votes determined that the avalanche would proceed in this direction and not another. And no, I don’t mean the users.