net.wars: Return of the browser wars

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 September 2008

It was quiet, too quiet. For so long it's just been Firefox/Mozilla/Netscape, Internet Explorer, and sometimes Opera that it seemed like that was how it was always going to be.

Wendy M Grossman

In fact, things were so quiet that it seemed vaguely surprising that Firefox had released a major update and even long-stagnant Internet Explorer has version 8 out in beta. So along comes Chrome to shake things up.

The last time there were as many as four browsers to choose among, road-testing a Web browser didn't require much technical knowledge. You loaded the thing up, pointed it at some pages, and if you liked the interface and nothing seemed hideously broken, that was it.

This time round, things are rather different. To really review Chrome you need to know your AJAX from your JavaScript. You need to be able to test for security holes, and then discover more security vulnerabilities. And the consequences when these things are wrong are so much greater now.

For various reasons, Chrome probably isn't for me, quite aside from its copy-and-paste EULA oops. Yes, it's blazingly fast and I appreciate that because it separates each tab or window into its own process it crashes more gracefully than its competitors. But the switching cost lies less in those characteristics than in the amount of mental retraining it takes to adapt your way of working to new quirks. And, admittedly based on very short acquaintance, Chrome isn't worth it now that I've reformatted Firefox 3's address bar into a semblance of the one in Firefox 2. Perhaps when Chrome is a little older and has replaced a few more of Firefox's most useful add-ons (or when I eventually discover that Chrome's design means it doesn't need them).

Chrome does not do for browsers what Google did for search engines. In 1998, Google's ultra-clean, quick-loading front page and search results quickly saw off competing, ultra-cluttered, wait-for-it portals like Altavista because it was such a vast improvement. (Ironically, Google now has all those features and more, but it's smart enough to keep them off the front page.)

Chrome does some cool things, of course, as anything coming out of Google always has. But its biggest innovation seems to be more completely merging local and global search, a direction in which Firefox 3 is also moving, although with fewer unfortunate consequences. And, as against that, despite the "incognito" mode (similar to IE8) there is the issue of what data goes back to Google for its coffers.

It would be nice to think that Chrome might herald a new round of browser innovation and that we might start seeing browsers that answer different needs than are currently catered for. For example: as a researcher I'd like a browser to pay better attention to archiving issues: a button to push to store pages with meaningful metadata as well as date and time, the URL the material was retrieved from, whether it's been updated since and if so how, and so on. There are a few offline browsers that sort of do this kind of thing, but patchily.

The other big question hovering over Chrome is standards: Chrome is possible because the World Wide Web Consortium has done its work well. Standards and the existence of several competing browsers with significant market share has prevented any one company from seizing control and turning the Web into the kind of proprietary system Tim Berners-Lee resisted from the beginning. Chrome will be judged on how well it renders third-party Web pages, but Google can certainly tailor its many free services to work best with Chrome – not so different a proposition from the way Microsoft has controlled the desktop.

Because: the big thing Chrome does is bring Google out of the shadows as a competitor to Microsoft. In 1995, Business Week ran a cover story predicting that Java (write once, run on anything) and the Web (a unified interface) could "rewrite the rules of the software industry". Most of the predictions in that article have not really come true – yet – in the 13 years since it was published; or if they have it's only in modest ways. Windows is still the dominant operating system, and Larry Ellison's thin clients never made a dent in the market. The other big half of the challenge to Microsoft, GNU/Linux and the open-source movement, was still too small and unfinished.

Google is now in a position to deliver on those ideas. Not only are the enabling technologies in place but it's now a big enough company with reliable enough servers to make software as a Net service dependable. You can collaboratively process your words using Google Docs, coordinate your schedules with Google Calendar, and phone across the Net with Google Talk. I don't for one minute think this is the death of Microsoft or that desktop computing is going to vanish from the Earth. For one thing, despite the best-laid cables and best-deployed radios of telcos and men, we are still a long way off of continuous online connectivity.

But the battle between the two different paradigms of computing – desktop and cloud – is now very clearly ready for prime time.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).