Google's plugin craze

Summary:Google is a company that prides itself on being a web company and helping to move everything into the browser. They created services like Google Maps and GMail which heavily relied on Ajax and helped usher in the idea of a much greater user experience inside the browser.

Google is a company that prides itself on being a web company and helping to move everything into the browser. They created services like Google Maps and GMail which heavily relied on Ajax and helped usher in the idea of a much greater user experience inside the browser. In a lot of ways they brought the original idea of RIAs, which was to move away from the page model, into the main stream. And along the way they became big supporters of the browser as an entity and supporting standards. So the past couple of days have been interesting because it seems like Google has moved beyond what the browser can offer alone and has started leveraging plug-ins to add functionality where needed.

Gears

Google Gears
The first and best example is Gears. Google saw that there were some things the browsers just couldn't do - including provide offline access - and decided they had to provide a solution. Enter Gears, a plugin which allows offline functionality and looks like it will become a core part of what Google is doing as it continues to require functionality beyond the browser. It seems like Google has rightfully come to the conclusion that standards bodies and browser vendors move slowly. It's tough to innovate on the web when you're depending on those two things to come together. So with Gears, Google is claiming to provide a standards implementation that the browsers can follow. At the Google I/O conference a few ideas were thrown out for what Gears might support:

  • Being able to create a shortcut icon on the desktop.
  • Notifications outside the browser.
  • Drag and Drop file access.
  • Blog data type in the database.
  • Webcam and Microphone support.

Google has always had big ambitions, but it seems like they've finally realized that the the browser is broken in a lot of ways. It can't keep up with the speed of the web.

Google Earth

Google Earth
The more interesting example for me was the Google Earth plugin. Currently Windows-only, it provides Google Earth functionality right in the browser. I took it for a spin tonight and I'm pretty impressed. It's snappy, fast, and seems full featured. They also have exposed a JavaScript API so developers can use JavaScript to write directly to the plugin. Trying to get something like this natively in the browser would have been insanity. You couldn't do this with SVG or anything that allows you to do animations and vector art in the newer browsers, so a plugin had to be created. I'm not sure how important Google Earth is to the overall Google strategy, but seeing it ported to the browser means that Google thought it was valuable enough to spend resources on.

So is this the start of a trend? Ask yourself if a year ago you would have expected Google's conference to be very plugin heavy and I think you'll realize that this is a big deal. Google is outgrowing the web browsers just like Adobe did, just like Microsoft did, just like Sun did, and just like a lot of other companies. I think in the long term Google hopes that Gears becomes a core part of any browser and that may still happen, but for now it's one more plugin to download and one more thing to program with or around. But all of this is good for RIA developers. We now have a lot of tools to play with and more and more people are realizing that the browser by itself can't keep up with our imaginations.

Topics: Google, Browser

About

Ryan Stewart holds an economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania and is now a Rich Internet Application developer and industry analyst. After graduating from Penn, he spent two years developing applications for the Wharton School and pushing the idea of the web as a platform for learning. Ryan now lives in Seattle with his wife... Full Bio

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