Saturday, December 3, 2011

[PC Magazine] Is Google Chrome the New IE6?

by Michael Muchmore @ PC Magazine

Google Chrome

Let me tell you about a browser. An innovative browser that was the first to implement new Web technologies that allowed for greater interactivity. A browser with a striking new interface. Chrome? No: Internet Explorer 6.

There's a reason that Microsoft's browser took over 95 percent of the Web browser market from Netscape (Firefox's ancestor): IE6 could do things earlier browsers could not. There was dynamic HTML, CSS, and yes, it even had new security features.

But over the years, problems with all these unique capabilities reared its ugly head. Every major Web site started to target IE, to the point that the sites didn't function correctly or fully in other browsers.

Fast forward to 2011. The hot new browser is Google's Chrome, which has just overtaken former indie darling Firefox in global market share, according to StatCounter. Chrome can do things that no other browser can do, and Google now targets Chrome exclusively, meaning some Google sites only function fully when viewed in Chrome. Even today, you can read on the Google blog about some new Angry Birds levels that only work in Chrome.

This is disturbing, when you consider that Google has made a lot of hay about the openness of the Web; Google wouldn't exist if it weren't for truly open Web standards. But more and more, Chrome is becoming a conduit for Google services, to the exclusion of other browsers.

Sure, anyone can make a site that works in Chrome, so it is open in that sense. But if that site only works in Chrome and not in other major browsers, we have a lack of openness in the Web ecosystem. Anyone could produce a site that fully worked in IE6, too, but we would have the same problem: the site wouldn't function fully in other browsers.

Instances of Chrome-only Google services are starting to appear. Most recently, with the release Chrome 15, the Internet search leader has changed just one user-facing feature—the new tab page. And it did so in a way designed to promote the company's Chrome Web Store. This "app" store—the apps are really just Web sites—only works in Chrome. Before this, the company finally announced offline capability for its Gmail webmail service. And you guessed it, it only works if you use Chrome.

Those are far from the only cases of a Google service only working in Chrome alone; other examples include Google Instant Pages, Google Cloud Print, folder uploading and drag-and-drop in Google Docs, and Google Apps notifications for email and calendar events.

Another "standard," SPDY, could change the whole Web into the Google Wide Web. SPDY is an HTTP replacement that compresses header data and allows persistent connections between server and browsers. It turns out that some Google sites are already using SPDY when you browse with Chrome. As with Instant Pages, the technology is available to other Web publishers to implement, but again, Google itself is the only major player to support it. Great stuff, faster Web interactions, but let's not forget that that universal access using any software is why the Web took off in the first place.

The strategy takes a page out of Microsoft's playbook for IE6 and magnifies it on a massive scale. Microsoft's Outlook Web Client (the first major example of an Ajax, app-like site) let you use the search feature in your inbox only if you ran Internet Explorer. That's exactly what Google has started doing: offer a Web service that almost works in all browsers, but requires the vendor's own browser to fully function. Thankfully, Microsoft has abandoned these IE-only features. Let's hope Google follows suit.

In a recent discussion I had with Hakum Lie, CTO of browser maker Opera Software, the Nordic exec expressed concern about Google's approach.

"It's often that [Google] launch[es] services without testing in all browsers. We sometimes wake up in the morning and see a new Google service with things we could have fixed if they'd worked with us during the development phase," Lie said. "Now that they have their own browser, they think less of making sure it works across the board, which is a concern, because Google wouldn't have existed if it hadn't been for open standards. We'd probably all live in Microsoft land."

But Lie acknowledged Google's contributions to Web standards, "Some of those experiments are great," he said. "We need to have experimentation going on, and we can't demand that everything works in all browsers. But you should test in major browsers."

Even more proprietary and locked down are the Chromebooks, which are pretty much just a browser in a box. "The problem we're having with the Chromebook is that it's a very closed platform," Lie said. "We complained about Microsoft all these years, but on Windows you could actually make a competing browser."

The same could be said for Apple iOS devices like iPads. Though Chromebooks isn't nearly as successful as the iPad, the day all computers are Chromebooks, browser choice and openness will be a thing of the past.

Like any multinational business, Google wants to dominate anywhere it can. It already does this in search. And don't get me wrong, Google has done a lot of fantastic work. Chrome wouldn't be as popular as it is if that weren’t the case. It's my PCMag Editors' Choice because it's orders of magnitude faster than its predecessors. The arrival of Chrome on the scene has made all other browsers get better, too. But I only hope that these improvements don't come at the price of true openness and interoperability. PDF version

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