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RIM's Torch acquisition leaves Apple in control

RIM may have bought Torch Mobile for more say in WebKit's development, but Apple's control of the open-source project means RIM may have spent its money in vain.

It was announced Monday that smartphone maker Research in Motion had acquired Torch Mobile, a provider of browsers and other applications based on the open-source WebKit project. Though Webkit has become the unofficial standard for mobile browsers, as Don Reisinger reports, it seems to be a largely Apple-controlled open-source community, one that has the potential to leave RIM, Palm, Google, and other WebKit users constantly playing catch-up to Apple.

Is WebKit open source? Absolutely. But is it truly an open, level playing field for RIM and other would-be competitors to Apple? Likely not.

Yes, there are other developers from Nokia, Torch Mobile, and Google involved with the project, but Apple controls the project, if by no other means than sheer numbers. Apple employs the majority of WebKit developers (30), with Google coming in second (19). Torch Mobile? It employs just eight of the WebKit development team members.

More pertinently, Apple employs far more of the WebKit reviewers than anyone else, which gives it much more control. Most of the other participants are committers, which are important but not equal in control to reviewers.

I've even heard that WebKit is not accepting outside contributions at present, though I have not yet been able to verify this.

Not that you need to look too deeply to see Apple's grip on the project. Just look at the logo:

WebKit logo

Look familiar? It should. Here's Apple's logo for its Safari browser, which is based on the WebKit project:

Safari logo

Coincidence? After all, the WebKit blog is called (get this): "Surfin' Safari. Think the blog is going to change its name anytime soon to "Surfin' RIM"? Don't hold your breath.

As the proud owner of four MacBook Pros and three iPhones, I'm not bashing Apple. I love what it produces.

But if part of RIM's interest in Torch Mobile was influence in the WebKit project, it could have saved its money. WebKit, for better or worse, is largely an Apple project, with serious support from Google. For everyone else, WebKit may be the best game in town, but it's Apple's town. It almost certainly will result in a better Blackberry browser for RIM customers, but not one that RIM has as much control over as it would like.

There are some technologies that make less and less sense as proprietary software. The browser is one of them. With Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome actively gaining at Internet Explorer's expense on the "desktop," it would be nice to see a truly open-source project--open in source, and open to outside involvement--standardize the mobile browsing experience, too.

There's Mozilla's Fennec, of course, but its development has been slow. WebKit may be the best option for RIM and others, but it would be an even better option if Apple took its hands off the wheel to open up the project further.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.