A Fork In the Browser Road

Image source: flickr

Well, the internet is buzzing with the discussions and reviews of Google’s recently release browser, Chrome. Nick Carr has some good thoughts on the subject, his key take aways:

“To Google, the browser has become a weak link in the cloud system… Google can’t wait for Microsoft or Apple or the Mozilla Foundation to make the changes.”

“…winning a “browser war” is not its real goal. Its real goal, embedded in Chrome’s open-source code, is to upgrade the capabilities of all browsers so that they can better support (and eventually disappear behind) the applications.”

I agree with this basic idea of needing to move browser technology forward, and having a few competing products motivates people to innovate. I recently heard an explanation that Google’s “Don’t be evil” credo really meaning “Don’t be Microsoft.” However, they were often criticized for releasing non-standard products, including features in Internet Explorers but also C# and Active X (more on that later.) In order to give browsers more speed and capabilities, Google had to move away from web standards.

Just to be clear, web standards are basically a really good idea, even if adoption of new ones is a slow process. Leaping frogging the standards process brings us back to web development in the mid-90s. In those days, after creating a website, we had to test the web pages on all the browsers across all the platforms. More likely than not, the site never worked on the first try, which gave the process a Groundhog Day feel. (Of course, we still have to do that today, but it is thankfully not has bad as the days of Netscape 4 and IE 5.)

Google’s decision to go open source is clever, but there is an implied statement to the other browsers of “join us, or be left behind.” I suppose, at least the other browsers are given the option of having access to the code, unlike other proprietary browsers. I’ll admit that an optimal outcome would be the other browsers would adopt only the best features, and those features would eventually be accepted as web standards. However, the problem with this scenario is that it will take a while for time for the best features to emerge, as web developers create new kinds of content for them. In the meanwhile, developers will have to play the user percentages game, and make trade offs to maximize what the number of people who can see their work. More importantly, users will have to have multiple browsers to access different kinds of content.

The fundamental problem is that the moving away from standard and interoperability is going to fracture the internet. If you want a glimpse of the implications of this idea, an interesting place to look is Korea where a large percentage of sites use Active X, which I learned about first hand trying to plan a trip to Seoul last year. Blogger and friend, Danny Kim gives a interesting account of the use of Active X in Korea. He also sent me a parody of Google’s Chrome comic book, which is worth a look as well.

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