Strap yourself in, this is a long post. It should be easy to skim, but the history may be interesting to some. I would like to make the point that, for a web rendering engine, being embeddable is a huge opportunity, how Gecko not being easily embeddable has meant we’ve missed several opportunities over the last few years, and how it would still be advantageous to make Gecko embeddable.
Embedding Gecko means making it easy to use Gecko as a rendering engine in an arbitrary 3rd party application on any supported platform, and maintaining that support. An embeddable Gecko should make very few constraints on the embedding application and should not include unnecessary resources.
- A 3rd party browser with a native UI
- A game’s embedded user manual
- OAuth authentication UI
- A web application
It’s hard to predict what the next technology trend will be, but there’s is a strong likelihood it’ll involve the web, and there’s a possibility it may not come from a company/group/individual with an existing web rendering engine or particular allegiance. It’s important for the health of the web and for Mozilla’s continued existence that there be multiple implementations of web standards, and that there be real competition and a balanced share of users of the various available engines.
Many technologies have emerged over the last decade or so that have incorporated web rendering or web technologies that could have leveraged Gecko;
(2007) iPhone: Instead of using an existing engine, Apple forked KHTML in 2002 and eventually created WebKit. They did investigate Gecko as an alternative, but forking another engine with a cleaner code-base ended up being a more viable route. Several rival companies were also interested in and investing in embeddable Gecko (primarily Nokia and Intel). WebKit would go on to be one of the core pieces of the first iPhone release, which included a better mobile browser than had ever been seen previously.
(2008) Chrome: Google released a WebKit-based browser that would eventually go on to eat a large part of Firefox’s user base. Chrome was initially praised for its speed and light-weightedness, but much of that was down to its multi-process architecture, something made possible by WebKit having a well thought-out embedding capability and API.
(2008) Android: Android used WebKit for its built-in browser and later for its built-in web-view. In recent times, it has switched to Chromium, showing they aren’t adverse to switching the platform to a different/better technology, and that a better embedding story can benefit a platform (Android’s built in web view can now be updated outside of the main OS, and this may well partly be thanks to Chromium’s embedding architecture). Given the quality of Android’s initial WebKit browser and WebView (which was, frankly, awful until later revisions of Android Honeycomb, and arguably remained awful until they switched to Chromium), it’s not much of a leap to think they may have considered Gecko were it easily available.
(2009) WebOS: Nothing came of this in the end, but it perhaps signalled the direction of things to come. WebOS survived and went on to be the core of LG’s Smart TV, one of the very few real competitors in that market. Perhaps if Gecko was readily available at this point, we would have had a large head start on FirefoxOS?
(2009) Samsung Smart TV: Also available in various other guises since 2007, Samsung’s Smart TV is certainly the most popular smart TV platform currently available. It appears Samsung built this from scratch in-house, but it includes many open-source projects. It’s highly likely that they would have considered a Gecko-based browser if it were possible and available.
(2011) PhantomJS: PhantomJS is a headless, scriptable browser, useful for testing site behaviour and performance. It’s used by several large companies, including Twitter, LinkedIn and Netflix. Had Gecko been more easily embeddable, such a product may well have been based on Gecko and the benefits of that would be many sites that use PhantomJS for testing perhaps having better rendering and performance characteristics on Gecko-based browsers. The demand for a Gecko-based alternative is high enough that a similar project, SlimerJS, based on Gecko was developed and released in 2013. Due to Gecko’s embedding deficiencies though, SlimerJS is not truly headless.
(2011) WIMM One: The first truly capable smart-watch, which generated a large buzz when initially released. WIMM was based on a highly-customised version of Android, and ran software that was compatible with Android, iOS and BlackBerryOS. Although it never progressed past the development kit stage, WIMM was bought by Google in 2012. It is highly likely that WIMM’s work forms the base of the Android Wear platform, released in 2014. Had something like WebOS been open, available and based on Gecko, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that this could have been Gecko based.
(2013) Blink: Google decide to fork WebKit to better build for their own uses. Blink/Chromium quickly becomes the favoured rendering engine for embedding. Google were not afraid to introduce possible incompatibility with WebKit, but also realised that embedding is an important feature to maintain.
(2014) Android Wear: Android specialised to run on watch hardware. Smart watches have yet to take off, and possibly never will (though Pebble seem to be doing alright, and every major consumer tech product company has launched one), but this is yet another area where Gecko/Mozilla have no presence. FirefoxOS may have lead us to have an easy presence in this area, but has now been largely discontinued.
(2014) Atom/Electron: Github open-sources and makes available its web-based text editor, which it built on a home-grown platform of Node.JS and Chromium, which it later called Electron. Since then, several large and very successful projects have been built on top of it, including Slack and Visual Studio Code. It’s highly likely that such diverse use of Chromium feeds back into its testing and development, making it a more robust and performant engine, and importantly, more widely used.
(2016) Brave: Former Mozilla co-founder and CTO heads a company that makes a new browser with the selling point of blocking ads and tracking by default, and doing as much as possible to protect user privacy and agency without breaking the web. Said browser is based off of Chromium, and on iOS, is a fork of Mozilla’s own WebKit-based Firefox browser. Brendan says they started based off of Gecko, but switched because it wasn’t capable of doing what they needed (due to an immature embedding API).
Current state of affairs
WebKit is the only viable alternative for an embeddable web rendering engine and is still quite commonly used, but is generally viewed as a less up-to-date and less performant engine vs. Chromium/Blink.
Gecko has limited embedding capability that is not well-documented, not well-maintained and not heavily invested in. I say this with the utmost respect for those who are working on it; this is an observation and a criticism of Mozilla’s priorities as an organisation. We have at various points in history had embedding APIs/capabilities, but we have either dropped them (gtkmozembed) or let them bit-rot (IPCLite). We do currently have an embedding widget for Android that is very limited in capability when compared to the default system WebView.
It’s not too late. It’s incredibly hard to predict where technology is going, year-to-year. It was hard to predict, prior to the iPhone, that Nokia would so spectacularly fall from the top of the market. It was hard to predict when Android was released that it would ever overtake iOS, or even more surprisingly, rival it in quality (hard, but not impossible). It was hard to predict that WebOS would form the basis of a major competing Smart TV several years later. I think the examples of our missed opportunities are also good evidence that opening yourself up to as much opportunity as possible is a good indicator of future success.
If we want to form the basis of the next big thing, it’s not enough to be experimenting in new areas. We need to enable other people to experiment in new areas using our technology. Even the largest of companies have difficulty predicting the future, or taking charge of it. This is why it’s important that we make easily-embeddable Gecko a reality, and I plead with the powers that be that we make this higher priority than it has been in the past.