After relying on third parties for several years – Internet Explorer, Netscape – Apple decided that it was time to take matters into its own hands. It was time Apple created its own browser (again). And so, Safari was born, and released unto the world ten years ago. These past few weeks, Don Melton, the project lead for Safari and WebKit, has been sharing a lot of interesting stories about the origins and development of Apple’s browser.
Yesterday, Melton published a story about Safari’s unveiling during Steve Jobs’ keynote at MacWorld, 7 January 2003. The few Safari engineers in the audience that day were tense as all hell, afraid something would go wrong during the long demonstration Jobs gave on the stage. Safari has issues with its networking code for months now, and during rehearsals, Safari froze up entirely. This turned out to be a network connection issue, but still – stress all around.
“Demo time,” Melton recalls, “And for the entire six minutes and 32 seconds that Steve used Safari on stage, I don’t remember taking a single breath. I was thinking about that network failure during rehearsal and screaming inside my head, ‘Stay online, stay online!’. We only had one chance to make a first impression.”
It must be an incredible feeling to work on something as crucial as a web browser, trying to fulfil Steve Jobs’ high standards, and then having to relinquish all control to the presentation team. During those 6 minutes and 32 seconds, the future of your career hangs in the balance, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Will your code work as it should, or will it fail spectacularly?
“Of course, Steve, Safari and the network performed flawlessly. I shouldn’t have worried”, Melton writes. I can’t imagine how that must’ve felt.
According to Melton, the audience was convinced about what would follow after the demo. Steve Jobs extolled the virtues of building Safari on top of an open source rendering engine, and everyone in the audience knew that the following five letters would appear on screen: “Gecko”. Instead, when Jobs went to the next slide, five completely different, large, white letters looked down upon the audience, in much the same way Bill Gates had done before six years ealier.
“What you also can’t hear on the video is someone about 15 to 20 rows behind where we were sitting – obviously expecting the word ‘Gecko’ up there – shout at what seemed like the top of his lungs: ‘WHAT THE FUCK!?'” Melton recalls, “KHTML may have been a bigger surprise than Apple doing a browser at all. And that moment was glorious. We had punk’d the entire crowd.”
In the near future, Melton will publish a post about why the company chose KDE’s KHTML, but he already shed some light on it the day Safari was unveiled. Straight from MacWorld, he sent a long email to the relevant KHTML/KDE mailing list, thanking them for their hard work on KHTML, and explaining why KHTML was chosen.
“When we were evaluating technologies over a year ago, KHTML and KJS stood out,” the email details, “Not only were they the basis of an excellent modern and standards compliant web browser, they were also less than 140,000 lines of code. The size of your code and ease of development within that code made it a better choice for us than other open source projects. Your clean design was also a plus.”
Of course, the most important benefit the world gained from Safari is not the browser itself. Safari, as a desktop browser, is rather mediocre, and personally I can’t think of a single reason why you would opt for it over Chrome or Firefox. On mobile, however, Safari is still my favourite browser of all. IE10 on WP8 still has some rendering issues to work out but is otherwise fairly close when it comes to fluidity and speed, while on Android, the browser situation is terrible.
No, the big thing the world gained that January day in 2003 was the evolution of KHTML, now known as WebKit. A fast and modern open source rendering engine that revolutionised mobile browsing and made it possible for several smaller projects – like Haiku – to gain a standards compliant, modern, and fast browser.
Ten years ago, Apple and KDE gave the world WebKit. Thanks.