Chrome and why Gates was right to be paranoid

Google's entrance into the browser wars is more of a reflection of the importance of the browser environment as we undergo a shift to the next generation of Internet application development frameworks. Rich Internet Applications are the future, and Google wants to stake a claim to it.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

When I first heard that Google was going to create its own web browser alternative, the first word that sprung to mind was "why?" As many bloggers and journalists have noted, the web browser market has grown rather crowded of late, turning what many had assumed was a market permanently dominated by Microsoft's Internet Explorer into one where Microsoft faces real competition. It certainly has caused Microsoft to "jump," however much the slow and languid fashion software goliaths move can be called "jumping."

But then, I thought about it a bit more. Many years ago, when flannel was the hippest of hip couture and venture capitalists were discovering how much fun it was to dump gobs of cash down Bay-area wells, there was a runtime created by a company that was making all sorts of money selling UNIX servers to companies who had just discovered this newly popular communications technology called "The Internet." That company was Sun Microsystems, and the runtime, of course, was Java.

Java's promise, at the time, was that it could create a software layer that abstracted away ideosyncracies of platforms. Software, in other words, wouldn't care anymore whether the customer used Windows or a Mac or Linux or Sun's Solaris. Sun angled to get its runtime onto as many computers as possible, and hoped to inspire waves of developers to write to Java APIs rather than the API unique to a particular platform.

Java applets were Java's nod towards the browser environment, acting as safe "plugins" which provided more functionality than the basic HTML tools available to browsers of the time. Clearly, though, the central thrust of the Java environment was towards applications that ran OUTSIDE the browser.

In hindsight, that wasn't such a great idea, as the browser has evolved into THE runtime. Bill Gates, in other words, was right to be paranoid. Most people spend 90% of their time in front of their computer interacting with the Internet by way of a browser. The browser, in other words, is the runtime.

Then again, that has been a fact for a very long time, and the fact that nobody bothered to challenge Microsoft's dominance was why Microsoft decided to sit on IE 6.0 for as long as it did. What has caused companies to spend bunches of money reigniting the browser wars?

Firefox certainly helped, showing that Microsoft's browser dominance was in no way unassailable. That, however, has little to do with the reason so many other companies are showing enthusiasm for getting into the space. People are starting to realize that Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) will involve some kind of shift into "something new." HTML, CSS and Javascript have evolved considerably over the years and are unlikely to cease playing an important part in the web user experience. But, it's pretty clear that we need something more, and people have lots of ideas about possible directions.

One example is "Canvas." An article on Ars Technica describes Canvas as follows:

The Canvas element allows web developers to programmatically render interactive bitmap images in HTML content. It was invented by Apple to bring richer graphical capabilities to the company's WebKit renderer. The Canvas functionality eventually became part of the HTML5 standard and has been implemented in both Gecko and Presto. Canvas is used extensively in several popular web applications, including Google Maps, but it hasn't gained widespread acceptance because it isn't available in Internet Explorer.

Google wants Canvas so badly that it was willing to create a plugin for IE to make sure the technology existed for most users. I think it goes without saying that Chrome is likely to support Canvas out of the box.

Other "Rich Internet Application" framework vendors include Adobe's Flash, an environment that is proprietary, but whose originators (Macromedia) understood the importance of RIAs for longest, thus giving Flash an advantage from the standpoint of market penetration. Another possible contender is Microsoft with Silverlight. The company hopes to leverage its developer base by enabling them to apply the same development conventions used in desktop Windows software to web development (a notion that would be all the more appealing had Microsoft spent the past few years seeding the market with WPF applications).

Given the enthusiams around the next wave of web development technologies, I have little reason to doubt that Google is jumping on the Chrome bandwagon simply because they are, as Google co-founder Larry Page noted, a web company. Google wants to influence the direction that the web platform upon which most of their business is based takes. Granted, they can make plugins for existing browsers, and with Canvas, have shown a willingness to undertake that work. The success of Firefox, however, has shown that you can push a lot harder on the dominant players if you own an entire browser platform.

Apple jumped into the fray back in March when they released Safari on Windows, and I wrote at the time that Apple's motivation for doing so was to ensure that developers tested their sites for compatibility with the browser present in all of Apple's products (Macs, the iPod touch, and the iPhone all use Safari extensively).

Apple, however, doesn't show many signs of wanting to become a platform company, a conceptually difficult move for a company with a revenue attachment to its own hardware. Google, on the other hand, has more platform-scaled ambitions.

Of course, Google does have a history of releasing technology to the sound of fireworks and marching bands, only to allow the technology to languish. GoogleTalk, Google's approach to Instant Messaging, was released to much fanfare three years ago, based as it was on the open source-friendly XMPP protocol. Though it has a strong position in XMPP/Jabber circles, It has gone mostly nowhere, lapped as it is by the proprietary networks that "own" the majority of IM users.

That has caused Google to pretty much ignore the product, which means that it is probably the most low-featured IM product in existence, in spite of its presence on the market for almost three years. Will Chrome meet a similar fate if it fails to gain the traction Google hopes for for it?

I think Google is likely to spend more energy on this for a longer time, as the "smoke" of so many companies spending so much time and energy on browser environments is sure sign of a fire. Google will want to stake its claim to the application platform of the future, and as Firefox has shown, browsers are a great way to do that.

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