Google Chrome why?

The Internet is all a buzz with Google’s open source web browser Chrome. But you have to ask why and even if it’s a big deal. Not why there’s all the interest but why Google bothered to build their own browser? After all they could have worked with Mozilla to add these features to Firefox – instead Google went and built their own browser.

Introducing Google Chrome
Introducing Google Chrome

So clearly I don’t know, but I wonder whether Google just got a bit fed up of waiting for the features they wanted and went ahead and built their own browser, while leaving the door open to merge these features back into Firefox at a later date. Google are a big supporter of Firefox and the idea of a Google browser has been associated with Firefox in the past; and Sergey Brin has said he is keen to see Firefox and Chrome become more unified in the future.

It is probably worth noting that they (Mozilla Corp) are across the street and they come over here for lunch,” Brin said of Mozzilla employees visits to cafeterias at the Googleplex headquarters. “I hope we will have more and more unity over time”.

But what features are important to Google? After all, as Jon Hicks points out, from an interface point of view, Chrome brings nothing new – all the features are already available in existing browsers. But I don’t think that’s the point and I don’t think that’s why it’s important. Google want to offer much richer and, more importantly, faster web applications.

The current browsers, including Firefox, just can’t cut it. JavaScript isn’t fast enough (thereby limiting the UX), browsers are single threaded and they aren’t stable enough. If Google want to challenge Microsoft (or anyone else for that matter) in the desktop space they needed a better platform. Of course others have sought to solve the same problem – notably Adobe with Air and Microsoft with Silverlight. Google’s solution is I think much neater – build an open source browser that supports multithreading, fast JavaScript execution and stuff Google Gears into the back end so it works offline. Joel Spolsky suggested something similar a while back:

So if history repeats itself, we can expect some standardization of Ajax user interfaces to happen in the same way we got Microsoft Windows. Somebody is going to write a compelling SDK that you can use to make powerful Ajax applications with common user interface elements that work together. And whichever SDK wins the most developer mindshare will have the same kind of competitive stronghold as Microsoft had with their Windows API

Imagine, for example, that you’re Google with GMail, and you’re feeling rather smug. But then somebody you’ve never heard of, some bratty Y Combinator startup, maybe, is gaining ridiculous traction selling NewSDK, which combines a great portable programming language that compiles to JavaScript, and even better, a huge Ajaxy library that includes all kinds of clever interop features. Not just cut ‘n’ paste: cool mashup features like synchronization and single-point identity management (so you don’t have to tell Facebook and Twitter what you’re doing, you can just enter it in one place). And you laugh at them, for their NewSDK is a honking 232 megabytes … 232 megabytes! … of JavaScript, and it takes 76 seconds to load a page. And your app, GMail, doesn’t lose any customers.

But then, while you’re sitting on your googlechair in the googleplex sipping googleccinos and feeling smuggy smug smug smug, new versions of the browsers come out that support cached, compiled JavaScript. And suddenly NewSDK is really fast. And Paul Graham gives them another 6000 boxes of instant noodles to eat, so they stay in business another three years perfecting things.

Of course the big difference is that it’s Google that have gone and launched the new browser that supports cached, compiled JavaScript.

With the release of Chrome, Google can now release versions of their apps that are richer and more responsive. Chrome then isn’t targeted at Firefox I think that Chrome is more of a threat to Silverlight and Air. After all if you can write a web app in JavaScript that’s just as rich and responsive as anything you can write in Silver-Air why would you bother with the proprietary approach?

Chrome is in effect a way to deliver a Google OS to your desktop, one that lets you run fast JavaScript applications. And if you believe Sergey Brin Firefox will, in time, adopt the same technologies as Chrome; which is of course just what Google want – maximum market penetration of those browsers that support their new rich web apps.

There’s no such thing as a document – only HTTP?

The closing keynote at XTech 2008 saw Sean McGrath discussing “Orang utans, Oxen and Ogham Stones“. The central premiss of the presentation is that as the web becomes more dynamic so more and more of the data is only accessible when its requested – and this can mean that its inaccessible to machines and therefore the rest of the web. There are no persistent documents.

Sean argued that we have three models operating on the web.

  • Model A is the platonic model. Documents (already) exist on the server – you simple request them over HTTP.
  • Model B has documents existing on the server but are dynamically rendered transforming the content in the process using, for example, CSS and JavaScript.
  • Model C has nothing existing until you observe it. The document is composed and rendered when requested – Just In Time programmatic generation of content.

Model C is Turing complete, user-sensitive, location-sensitive and device-sensitive and model C is winning at least on the client side with Ajax, Flash, Silverlight and Air. It’s now relatively common when viewing the source of pages and see no actual content, just JavaScript to generate the content.

So does this matter? Sean thinks so yes. He fears that this data is siloed, trapped within the code and not accessible via addressable URIs. And if we lose URIs and hypertext then we also lose deep linking – and what about search engines? Will the Googlebot download that JavaScript and eval it to spider it? And what about everyone else? URLs are great for wombling – they can be bookmarked, tagged and mashed-up.

If Sean is right then rather than the web being made up of documents with some code (as it once was) we will be left with a web of few documents and lots of applications. A Web which is really just HTTP.

But is this all true? I’m not so sure.

Sure there has been a rise in the use of client side scripting to dynamically render content (notably with the rise of Ajax web apps) and there are plenty of server side applications delivering dynamic content – but I don’t think we should be worried about server side apps, as long as they are well designed.

It seems to me that we have three classes of webpage:

  • Resources – individual objects, which if designed well live quite happily at persistent URLs;
  • Aggregations – listings and groupings of those resources;
  • Web apps – pages that let users manipulate resources.

So for example even though the BBC Programmes is rendered dynamically (from a server side application) the resources are found at persistent URLs and the pages contain lots of lovely, semantic, mark-up (there are are also plenty of aggregations). Whereas Flickr uses Picnik a client side photo editing application to let Flickr users edit their photos.

Is this a problem? I don’t think so, no. After all, as Sean noted there’s no such thing as a resource only a representation of one. And this is the best you can ever get – the web is made up of URIs and HTTP. We just need to be careful not to lose sight of the importance of URIs.

Photo: good ol days, by emdot. Used under licence.

Link for 2007.12.29

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