Behind the browser wars

Google's Chrome could challenge Microsoft, but critics cite shortcomings

DOES THE WORLD really need another Web browser? Maybe not, but freeing applications from the constraints of operating systems seems like a good idea.

It's with that stated intention that Google recently released Chrome, its new open-source browser. Under the hood, Chrome offers the tools for developers to build richer, heftier applications ' ones that can be run on a browser, rather than directly on a PC.

'Today, most of what we use the Web for on a day-to-day basis aren't just Web pages. They're applications,' according to an online comic strip that Google posted to introduce Chrome (GCN.com/1199). 'Wouldn't it be great, then, to start from scratch and design something based on the needs of today's Web applications?' 'The launch starts with the assertion that browsers need to become application platforms,' Laurent Lachal, senior analyst at London IT research firm Ovum, said in a statement. 'The clear target is not just Microsoft's Internet Explorer but also the Windows desktop.'

Although support for applications that do not rely on any particular operating system seems worthwhile, critics say Google's step is but one in the large march toward Web applications. Adobe, the Mozilla Foundation, which produces the Firefox browser, and Microsoft all have advanced the cause of Web applications.

Some would argue Google's offering isn't even the strongest launching point for a new Web app.

'Chrome is really interesting because it's another browser with a slightly different set of capabilities,' said Adrian Ludwig, Adobe Systems group manager for platform and developer products. 'But those capabilities will not be available on all the other browsers.'

Chrome features a lot of muscle to improve support of beefy Web applications. To aid stability, the designers have enabled the browser to support multiple processes that run independently. Other browsers are single-threaded, meaning all the operations they undertake happen in the same memory space of the computer. This has become increasingly problematic with later browsers, especially those that allow users to open multiple pages under different tabs. When one page crashes, the entire browser ceases to function.

Chrome gives each process its own memory space. If one page gets hung up on, say because of bad JavaScript, the other pages will continue to operate normally. 'We are applying the same kind of process isolation you find in modern operating systems,' Google software engineer Arnaud Weber is portrayed as saying in the comic strip. Establishing multiple processes also helps reduce the amount of memory the browser uses ' when you close a tab or window, that memory is no longer used.

Perhaps the most notable feature on Chrome is the way Google strengthened support for JavaScript, the programming language most Web designers use to add computational abilities to Web pages ' for example, a Web page that can add two numbers you supply in a form.

The release of Chrome signals two intentions from Google, said Sridhar Vembu, chief executive officer of Advent- Net: One is to encourage the use of heavier applications on the Web, and the other is to support this environment through open standards. Vembu has been vocal in his support of Chrome. AdventNet offers an online office suite that relies heavily on JavaScript.

Vembu said Chrome's significance is not so much as an alternative to other browsers but as an alternative to the developing market of Rich Internet Application platforms, such as Microsoft Silverlight and Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), which uses Adobe's Flash player to run programs outside a browser. For a rundown of RIAs, see GCN.com/1200.

With RIAs, developers create applications that people can download from the Internet. Though they do not use browsers to operate, once written, RIAs can be run across different platforms, such as Microsoft Windows or Apple Macintosh.

The danger in using AIR or Silverlight is that single companies oversee them, Vembu said. True, AIR is based on Flash, which in turn is based on an open-source derivative of the International Organization for Standardization's ECMAScript language. And although Microsoft hasn't opened Silverlight coding, it has published some specifications and made others available to Novell developer Miquel de Icaza, who is writing a version of Silverlight for Linux, called Moonlight.

Despite this amount of openness, Vembu said organizations using AIR or Silverlight could be locked into the tools offered by a single company. In contrast, a wide variety of Web application developers use Javascript.

Vembu's views were echoed by Yahoo architect Douglas Crockford, one of the keynote speakers at the XML 2007 conference. Crockford warned that single-vendor offerings such as AIR and Silverlight detract from the work needed to make the HTML Web standard handle Web applications.

Google is not alone in its support for Web applications. Last month, Microsoft released a beta of the next version of Internet Explorer. IE8's new features would facilitate wider use of Web applications.

For the recently released Version 3.0 of Firefox, another widely used browser, the Firefox volunteer team of developers installed what they say is the fastest JavaScript engine of any browser.

However, using a Web browser to host Web applications still has some shortcomings ' namely it can tie the application to the browser, rather than the operating system, Adobe's Ludwig said. This could be problematic for Chrome if a Web application used Google-specific tools such as Gears, a set of application programming interfaces. Gears is an open-source effort, based at least partially on Version 5 of HTML, which is still being vetted by the World Wide Web Consortium and might not be standardized for years to come.

'I think it's important to think about what is happening today, what is happening in a couple of years, and what is happening five to 10 years from now, when that standard is actually implemented in other browsers as well,' Ludwig said.

GCN senior writer Patrick Marshall contributed to this report.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above