Google's Chrome, competition, and old pants

Part of the appeal of Google's Chrome browser for this blogger was the simple user interface. Difference is good from a user interface standpoint, but Google also wants to shore up the aging HTML / CSS / Javascript stack, a realm where they only have so much scope to be different as they try to compete with the growth of more modern "Rich Internet Application" (RIA) frameworks.

Google seems to be doing rather well in its efforts to convince people to try out its new Chrome browser. Whether that enthusiasm will persist past this initial phase is an open question, but Google has apparently surpassed Opera in market share, which sounds a lot better than saying that Google surpassed 0.74% of the market for web browsers. Obviously, the statistics are higher for technology-oriented sites than non-technology oriented sites, but Google has shown that its name brand is strong. When it releases products, people do take them for a spin.

I've taken Chrome for a spin, and I have nothing negative to say about it. I do appreciate its zen-like simplicity. It also, I think, demonstrates the appeal of letting third parties run on their own from a UI convention standpoint (in contrast to Apple, where the user interface conventions are much more regimented).  Chrome, like Safari for Windows before it, creates its own look. That is a rather appealing thing, and though I agree that Microsoft should do more to make its own applications consistent, that doesn't mean there isn't value in leaving third parties free to create their own concepts.

Even so, part of the appeal of Chrome in 2008 is, I think, the "old pants" syndrome. Ignore for the moment your opinion of Internet Explorer's technical qualites. It would be hard to argue that IE isn't functional, or that it doesn't perform its central task of rendering most of the web sites on the planet.

IE, however, is growing too familiar. Part of the appeal of Chrome, like the appeal of Safari for Windows before it, is that it was different. As I noted before, today's users spend an overwhelming amount of their computer time seated in front of a web browser. That breeds a certain amount of familiarity that can grow tiresome, thus making the interface differences of alternatives that much more appealing.

Of course, Firefox is different, and I'm not particularly enamored of the Firefox user interface the way I was of Chrome, or for that matter, the Safari interface. But it does make me think that an interesting twist to the Internet Explorer story would be a centralized and simple way for customers to download skins for IE that is an integrated (and obvious) part of the user interface. The trick to getting any user to try out advanced features is always simplicity, and a UI feature that made it easy to quickly select from hundreds of third-party skins (certified by Microsoft, and each of which having the power to add and remove controls as they desire, allowing users to turn their browser into visions of streamlined simplicity or airplane control panels, if they so desire) might be appealing, if nothing else than to alleviate the "old pants" syndrome. Obviously, from a technical standpoint, Microsoft will still need to continue to improve the browser. Failure to do so would clearly be death in a market swirling with browser competition.

Of separate note, however, are the techincal innovations present in Chrome, and in particular, improvements to Javascript performance. That's important, to be sure, but I'm not convinced that it makes Javascript as much a competitor to Silverlight (or other RIA development technologies) as Scott Hanselman indicated at a Microsoft TechEd conference in Australia. Granted, improved Javascript speeds makes the entire HTML, CSS and Javascript combination that much more competitive as a technology. That doesn't change, however, that HTML, CSS and Javascript are still a comparative beast to develop...even worse if you start to throw in AJAX-style programming principles.

Other environments, Flash and Silverlight among them, make things a LOT easier. That's one area that HTML, CSS and Javascript are going to have difficulties fixing without ceasing to be HTML, CSS and Javascript.

Even if Chrome achieves Javascript speeds that make geeks burble like John Travolta in a famous late-70s musical, it is merely going to be the functional equivalent of improving the speed and performance of COBOL. It doesn't resolve the question of whether, long term, COBOL (which in this analogy, is really HTML, CSS and Javascript) is the proper long term basis for web development. 

You'll be able to make socket calls back to the source domain in Silverlight 2 applications, as well as have access to a rather large subset of the full .NET runtime.  How does faster Javascript compare to that?

Do note that I've been doing web development since at least 1996, so I'm not saying this as a desktop software developer antagonistic to web development technologies. It's not going to hurt me if the skills I've spent years acquiring are still as useful in 15 years as they are today.

On the other hand, HTML, CSS, and Javascript are starting, from a programming standpoint, to feel like old pants. I'm open to something new, and that likely applies to most web developers. That's the real reason the web browser market is so hot right now. To play the competitive game, you have to make a web browser.

Google now has made one.  Let the games begin.