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By GCN Staff

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Browsers won't replace operating systems

When Google released its browser earlier this month, the IT pundits rushed to call it a potential replacement of the operating system.

So we're glad that Ojan Vafai, a software engineer for the Google Chrome browser, did his best to set the record straight at a session on the future of browsers at the O'Reilly Web 2.0 Expo in New York last week.

"It's not even clear what it means to replace the operating system with the browser. It's [an] apples and oranges [scenario] frankly, to compare an operating system [with] a Web browser," Vafai said, responding to a question of whether browsers would one day replace operating systems. "There's a bunch of stuff that is built in to Web browsers that are OS dependent currently, such as font rendering. [These are] little things that the entire application depend on, and work on top of the OS. You can't just take it out and put it somewhere else" he continued.

Vafai did mention, however, that there were additional features that are now the domain of the OS that could become part of the browser, such as device drivers for printers and digital cameras and the like. For instance, a browser-based camera device driver could allow users to upload their pictures directly from their camera to a photo-sharing service, such as Google's PicasaWeb, he said.

"But we're a good ways from that," he admitted.

The Mozilla foundation's chief technology officer, Brendan Eich, also weighed in on the question (Mozilla is the organization behind the Firefox browser). He noted that we are seeing fewer and fewer Windows desktop applications being built ' developers seem to be writing much more browser-based applications these days. So while browsers may never replace the OS, they are increasingly confining their importance to that of a supporting role.

The prognosis for Scalable Vector Graphics

This session had a number of other interesting tidbits as well. For instance, one audience member rather pointedly asked the panel of browser experts (which in addition to Eich and Vafai, also had Microsoft Internet Explorer platform architect Chris Wilson), "How dead is SVG"?

SVG stands for Scalable Vector Graphics. It is an Extensible Markup Language-based way of rendering graphics. And the question was an appropriate one: Although the idea of XML-based instructions for rendering graphics may have been appealing, early implementations tended to be buggy and slow to execute. As a result, SVG tends not to be widely used these days.

But SVG is far from dead, Eich assured the crowd. It didn't play nicely with Cascading Style Sheets, it was way too entangled with XML, and it still needs to be reconciled with the HTML 5 canvas tag. Nonetheless, it could prove to be a major part of the Web's future. "It's in [Google's] WebKit. It's in Mozilla. Opera had to implement it for various phone carriers," he noted. What is needed now is more applications to take advantage of the capability.

Vafai also agreed with this assessment. "People just haven't found that right use for it yet," he said.

Another interesting exchange came up about the use of Adobe Flash. Namely, he asked why more developers didn't use Flash for developing Web pages.

It seemed like a loaded question, but it really wasn't, as it turned out. One of the criticisms of Google Chrome was that it isjust another browser that developers had to write for. Since each browser implements Web standards ever so slightly differently, developers need to test their new pages with each browser and often need to make changes to the source code to accommodate each browser's quirks. Flash, of course, is installed on the vast majority of desktop computers. So it would make sense that developers just wrote for Flash rather than for each browser. Yet the moderator was surprised more developers didn't do so.

"How many don't use Flash because they have a philosophical problem about trusting a single vendor for their platform?" he asked. Only a few hands went up in the audience, which numbered well over 200.

"How many aren't using Flash because they just don't like it?" a hand or two went up.

"How many aren't using Flash because they don't want to learn it?" Again, not many responses.

"And how many people have some other reason for not using Flash?"

At this point, more than a few people yelled back "SEO." They were referring to search engine optimization, or the supposed difficulty search engines have in indexing content rendered in Flash.

The point was not lost on the panelists. While concepts such as supporting an open Web is admirable, the day-to-day concerns of the Web manager can trump such notions. Go figure.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Sep 23, 2008 at 9:39 AM


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