Google's plugin craze

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.

TOPICS: Google, 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.

Google GearsThe 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 EarthThe 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

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  • Opera and Gears

    Opera announced as well that they will support Gears functionality in 9.5 (both on desktop and mobile).

    So Gears might actually become quite well supported across browsers.
    • RE: Opera and Gears

      I think it will be pretty well supported, but will it become part of the core builds of these browsers?
      • If a lot of sites like MySpace start using it in very innovative ways, it

        will be come part of the standard builds. That is for everybody but MS. MS needs it to have degraded functionality on non Windows platforms and Gears is open source and will work equally well on all platforms. Eventually, MS may adopt it and try to create incompatibilities, like the did with Java and are doing with ODF.

        But, it is interesting that MySpace chose Gears and NOT MS rich web application technologies.
      • Precursor to HTML5

        The Gears developers view Gears as kind of a testing ground for things that will eventually go into HTML5 standards, and HTML5 will eventually become part of the core of all browsers. I took some notes at Aaron Boodman's talk at Google I/O about this - I could post if you're interested.
        Ed Burnette
  • RE: Google's plugin craze

    What do I think?

    As long as they are free, I feel good.
  • Gears also needs Java so we can do more heavy lifting in the browser as

    time goes on. For example, the offline mode of Google Writer does not allow you to import other file formats, since Java Script can not do that.
  • Looks to me as if Ryan has identified

    the main direction (there are, of course, others) in which [b]Google[/b] is moving. And I suspect that as [b]Google[/b] goes, so will many others as well. We might do well to expect still more emphasis on plugins in our collective immediate future....

  • Going beyod the browser -- a trend: yes

    It's not so much that Google is setting a trend as much as it is following a trend. (Wow, a follower? Actually not surprising. It followed Yahoo and Excite into the search rush but did it better).

    If you look at start ups like Cooliris (maker of the ever popular 3D viewer browser extension called PicLens), you'll see that going beyond the browser is very much in trend. PicLens transforms the browser into a full-screen 3D experience for online photos and videos. "Think Beyond the Browser" is even their company motto! Just see their demo

    Many makers other Firefox and IE addons also extend beyond functionalities beyond the browser.
  • RE: Google's plugin craze

    <a href="">My thoughts</a> exactly! Mostly anyway.