its the browser, stupid

It seems every week there’s a new discussion about how to bring a proper browser to AROS. I’ve seen talk about how to structure the bounty (if we have one), which codebase to use, whether it the source should be closed or open, and so on. Here I give my take on the whole thing, and offer a proposal for how to proceed.

In my opinion the requirements specified by the previous bounties have been seriously mis-stated. The current bounty to port MOS KHTML has a whole $10 attached to it. The bounty for AWeb Lite is better, but its not a browser that is going to meet most of the requirements people have. There’s no question that a browser is important, and I think that plenty of people would be willing to drop some cash on it if they knew that they’d get something modern and usable out of it.

The main thing to consider is what the users need. Users don’t care how their browser works or what software lies under it. All they care is that they can visit the websites they need and do whatever they can do elsewhere. To that end, I wouldn’t mandate any particular codebase, but instead require that the browser support some set of technologies (CSS, JavaScript, XMLHttpRequest, etc) and/or some set of sites (AROS-Exec, Slashdot, GMail, etc).

There’s other factors, of course. Ideally such a browser would be in two parts: a library that can be embedded in other applications, and a UI that uses that library. It would be wonderful if the UI was Amiga/AROS specific, meaning that it uses Zune, datatypes, and generally fits the rest of the system.

I also feel pretty strongly about it being open source. I’ve seen proposals that Sputnik, which is partially closed, be ported, but there’s two problems with that. The first is that by offering a bounty for it we’re pretty much limiting the bounty to the original developer - no other developer can ever hope to take on the task because the source isn’t available.

The other problem is about maintenance. A closed-source browser means that we’re beholden to a single developer/vendor for updates. The web is a fast-moving place. To keep our browser up to date and thus still useful for anything a user might want to do, it will need to be updated. It will need patching, particularly for security bugs. It will need new features. Without the source available, we can’t have a team of people contributing, so things won’t move as quickly as they could, and should the developer decide to abandon the project, then we’re screwed.

(There’s a certain irony in the fact that a project that exists to provide an open alternative to a closed system that was abandoned by the vendor for a number of years would openly embrace the potential for the same fate for a fairly fundamental piece of technology).

Its worth noting that this if done correctly this bounty could actually end up getting quite large. Not limiting the potential developer base and code base means that outside developers could take this project on.

So, my proposal is this. Close the existing bounties for web browsers, and start a new one. Put money from the previous browsers into that. The bounty requirements will be to produce a browser that has Zune-based UI, can usefully access a number of common sites (listed, including “hard” things like GMail), be reasonably standards conformant (with links to pages that can test this conformance), and has a clean seperation between the engine and the UI.

Note that the browser UI does not need many features. I’d settle for straight browsing - no bookmarks, no sidebars, and so forth. The rendering engine is where most of the complexity is, but there’s a few excellent rendering engines available (such as WebKit, KHTML and Gecko), so most of the work has already been done. Features can be added as part of normal development outside of the bounty.

Of course, there’s no requirement that one of these engines be used, as long as the result works.

Because the bounty is deliberately light on technical details, I’d recommend that anyone applying be asked to show how they intend to meet the requirements. That would mostly be showing what engine they intend to port.

And if any of the TeamAROS crew are reading and seriously thinking this is good idea, I’d be very happy and willing to act in some sort of sponsor role for this bounty, working with whoever ends up taking it on to make sure the requirements are going to be met and giving them whatever assistance they need. I’m happy to do any and all legwork on this, actually, because I consider it to be of great importance.

On the other and, we can just carry on as usual, and eventually I’ll port WebKit and that will be the end of it. I’m already idly working on this. So idle, in fact, that I’m not actually working on it, but I do poke at the makefiles every now and again.