What Exactly Is A Browser?…

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If I asked you to define exactly what a Browser is, could you?

At first blush, this may seem like a dumb question. Browsers have been around since Netscape Navigator introduced the concept well over a decade ago, and most technical people can rattle off the names of popular browsers like “Internet Explorer”, “Safari”, “Firefox” and “Chrome” without hesitating. But while it may be easy for people to provide this kind of ‘definition by example’, I would argue that getting people to offer a definition based on more specific criteria would end up being a much bigger challenge.

Let me assert that this isn’t simply an academic question that I’m asking as some intellectual exercise. It has actually become a very important issue that will need to be resolved – both legally as well as in the ethos of the web. To understand why, consider the recent tussle between the NY Times and the young developers of the successful iPad RSS reader called PULSE.

PULSE was one of the applications profiled during Steve Job’s WWDC keynote. It’s a popular application that marries the traditional RSS reader with an innovative browsing interface, creating something really unique. Shortly after that keynote, Apple received a letter from the New York Times demanding that PULSE be removed from the App Store. Here is a clip taken directly from the legal take down notice Apple received:

The Pulse News Reader app, makes commercial use of the NYTimes.com and Boston.com RSS feeds, in violation of their Terms of Use*. Thus, the use of our content is unlicensed. The app also frames the NYTimes.com and Boston.com websites in violation of their respective Terms of Use.

Though there’s a long discussion I could have on the commercial use clause in the above quote, for this post consider the line I called out that talks about “framing” sites. Historically, “framing” was the practice where one website would use an HTML ‘<frame>’ command to embed the contents of another web site into it’s display. This was predominantly used by unsavory sorts on the web as a way for them to “capture” the value of another site instead of investing directly in creating value of their own. In response to this, most quality websites started including Terms of Use that specifically banned people from framing them in this way. If nothing else, it gave a site the legal basis to going after any other site that tried to do it to them. In those early days of the web, recognizing this practice was pretty clear and straight forward.

Fast forward to today…

There have been two significant threads of web evolution that have made things far more complicated and less clear. One is that ‘browsers’ have continued to add features and functions that make them much more than simple utilities for browsing web pages. The other is that an increasing number of applications being built today include some form of integrated web browsing as a native component of their functionality.

What this has done is blur the line between browsers and other internet savvy applications, blending code based features with HTML rendered options to enhance the web experience. To get a better sense of this, consider some of the capabilities that are now available within modern browsers.

  • TABS: Perhaps the most basic extension that is now a part of every significant browser is the TAB bar sitting above the browser display:

    Tabs allow multiple web pages to remain open at the same time, simplifying switching between multiple sites. What TABS end up doing, effectively, is framing individual sites and showing only one of them at a time based on which ‘TAB’ is selected. It isn’t using HTML FRAMING, but it uses code to achieve the same result. It is also core to the way most people browse the web today. While this type of function may seem trivial, it is actually one of the issues PULSE came under fire for.

  • REFORMATTING: Some browsers are starting to go a step further and actually reformat the content displayed on a web page. Consider this snapshot I took of the new READER feature in the latest version of Apple’s Safari browser:

    READER lets a person take any web page with a single article on it and view it in an easy to read window without any images, ads, or other distracting ‘web noise’. Though this capability is built in to Apple’s latest version of this browser, I think it clearly falls outside any traditional definition of “web browsing”. In many ways, it does something even worse than ‘page framing’. READER creates a denatured version of the page, removing any branding or advertising the creators of the content originally packaged with it. You can even mail it or print it in this reduced form.

  • PLUG-IN’s: Beyond the capabilities offered by browsers natively, most modern browsers also provide ways for their feature sets to be extended through Plug-ins. Plug-ins are lightweight applications that ‘plug in’ to the back-end functionality of a browser to extend it in some way. Plug-ins can leverage a browser to do things like communicate with hosted services across the internet, direct the browser to open different web pages, analyze the content being displayed on a page, or even augment it with outside content. Consider this screen shot of a plug-in called GLUE. In this case, the plug-in has been activated by someone looking at a specific book on the Barnes & Noble web site:

    One of the features ‘GLUE’ adds to a browser is the ability to analyze what is being shown on a page, find specific items that are being mentioned there, and give people additional options for interacting with those items. In this case it has recognized the book and, among other choices, has given them the option to buy the book – on Amazon. I have no doubt that B&N would much prefer that choice not to be a simple left mouse click away on their site.

In all of these cases, the browsers are providing functionality that goes beyond simple browsing. In some of them, the functionally is either passively or actively at odds with what the site providers would like to have done with their content. At this point in time, all of these capabilities – since they are happening within mainstream browsers – have become accepted practice on the web.

Compared to what some of these browsers can end up doing to web pages, what PULSE did to tick off the NY Times is almost trivial. Safari can let people browse through their RSS feeds (another built-in ‘browser’ feature) and open any interesting articles they find using the ‘READER’ interface show above. However, because PULSE is “an application”, the same basic type of functionality falls afoul of the NY Time’s terms of use – a distinction in form but not in function.

It’s clear that the way many web sites (and possibly even the law) view this distinction is out of touch with where the technology has progressed. Drawing a clearly defined line between browsers and applications would be a fruitless exercise. In fact, given the shift to the mobile web, I would expect browsing to start happening a lot more via application embedded browsers. Our underlying norms of ‘browsing’ may actually be changing at this point.

I have no doubt that finding common ground here between content publishers and consumers won’t be easy – but this is an area that needs to be debated and discussed. A compromise of some kind will need to be reached and a new “cultural standard” established in this area.

The great thing about the web community is that it still has the capacity to do that.

Google's Chrome OS: Exciting But…

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It will be great to finally see a truly web based operating system released…
google-chrome-laptop
Though there is still a great deal unknown about Google’s Chrome OS, it will likely be the next logical step in operating system development: a rich edge-based footprint for web centric computing. If combined with their recently unveiled unified messaging environment Google Wave, Chrome OS will offer a fairly unique and attractive user experience. By providing a slimmed down set of local services to cleanly extend open web standard support – without the need for any legacy support – Chrome OS should be able to offer some significant performance benefits vs. Windows. Here’s what Google said about it in their own recent announcement:

Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web. And as we did for the Google Chrome browser, we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work.

I have no doubt that Google will try to make Chrome OS a fairly complete solution out of the box. They can certainly roll together all of their own web applications with popular 3rd party web apps to cover most of the key functionality people would look to have when they power a system on. I also expect that Google will extend their Android “App Store” and fold it in to this new OS. This would let new applications download and install just like browser plug-ins instead of like traditional windows applications. If Google can combine that simplicity with ‘instant on’ functionality, Chrome OS will offer a clearly differentiated computing model from any of the “old-school” operating systems.

This is an exciting and important move by Google. Microsoft’s “Windows” is the crown jewel of tech industry franchises. Even for a company the size of Google, grabbing just a small piece of Windows total market share – even an overlapping piece – would be significant. Chrome OS has a lot of potential here.

But…

While the move to a web centric operating may appear conceptually correct and even inevitable, Google will still need to overcome a lot of challenges if they want to make Chrome OS a success:

  • Time To Market: Chrome OS won’t be out for another year. In technology circles, a year is forever. Neither Microsoft nor Apple are passively waiting for this to arrive. Windows 7 should be able to support Netbook systems, and more of the Office suite will be available as web based applications. Apple has already claimed a big chunk of this mobile web space with their iPhone, and will likely be releasing a new device this year that will probably appeal to the same audience Chrome OS is targeting. And innovation continues to come from every corner.
  • Market Momentum: Windows is everywhere. People are comfortable with it and pretty much know how to work with it. For all it’s well publicized issues, it’s the devil everyone already knows. Getting people to take a chance on something new is tough, and Google will need deliver more than a ‘Field of Dreams’ marketing strategy if they want to get any mind share/traction with Chrome OS. Unfortunately, that’s not an area they’ve shown themselves to be particularly adroit in.
  • Mobile Connectivity: Anyone that depends on any of the US wireless carriers for mobile data services already knows just how bad service can be in some places. If I had a hard drive that was as unreliable as these services are, I would need to get it replaced. In a mobile, internet centric computing device, the web is my new “hard drive”. It’s where I store my data and load my applications from. To overcome this Google will need to offer a system that presents a meaningful level of functionality even when users are disconnected from the web, or when connectivity is intermittent.
  • Device Support: Beyond everything else, this could be the make or break item for Chrome OS. People have significant investments in all sorts of devices: printers, phones, cameras, scanners, media players, etc. If Google can’t figure out a way to get support ready for the most popular of these devices by the time it launches, it will end up being just an interesting experiment that most people ignore. And it needs to do it without making Chrome OS a slow starting or virus prone mess.

At this point, Google’s Chrome OS is just an idea with potential. It’s success will depend on focus, attention to detail and flawless execution. They will need to articulate clearly how this fits in with their seemingly competitive investment in Android, and actively work with partners in the market place to make sure support is there for it on launch day. Even though Chrome OS will be open sourced upon release, Google needs to take ownership of getting penetration in the market. This is different from any other product they have launched. Google will be asking people to depend on Chrome OS for everything they want to do, and will even need to convince new system buyers to bet their entire purchase on it. It needs to be a complete, fully functional, well supported offering.

I’m excited to see how well Google rises to the challenge…

Google Ad Promotes Chrome Browser…

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Here is a new ad Google produced to start promoting their Chrome browser:

This is a great stop-motion production, and it reminded me of some of the more creative ads tech firms put out during the go-go days of the early internet.

This particular ad was produced by Google’s office in Japan, and is part of viral campaign they are launching to try and boost the market share of Chrome. I’m not sure how much of a push Google will put behind this globally, but I hope that get some traction with it. Chrome is probably the best browser in the market today, though the beta of Safari 4 also looks interesting. Both Chrome and Safari have embraced HTML 5, making them attractive vehicles for the next generation of sophisticated browser based applications.

While I’m interested to see how effective this Ad campaign ends up being, one thing has become very clear. Web standards matter more now than they ever have before.

The days when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer ruled the web have come to an end…

Google Chrome: Browser Wars Are History…

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The “browser wars” are history. Everyone knows that…

So then why is Google launching a new browser called Chrome?

The answer is quite simple. “Chrome” really isn’t about bringing yet another browser alternative to the market. That would be pointless for a company like Google – they are already a key component of every major browser on the market.

Instead, it’s about bringing a Microsoft Windows alternative to the market…

This isn’t just the release of some gee-whiz technology from Google Labs. This is the next phase of a strategy Google has been playing out over the past several years.

With the launch of GMail, the acquisition of sites like Blogger/Picassa/Orkut/YouTube, the release of Maps, support for mashups, the development of a full online office suite, and the release of Gears, Google has been building up a portfolio of capabilities that – when combined with their core search capabilities – touches every aspect of the web ecosystem.

They are essentially packaging the web as a new type of Operating System…

When looked at in this context, developing their own browser makes perfect sense. Google is solving a part of their own their “last mile” problem by working to take control of the final link connecting users to their content and capabilities – the browser footprint. This is a big and necessary step for leveraging their dominance in search into the broader application platform space.

But it isn’t the final one…

I expect Google to aggressively integrate Chrome into their Android platform. This will probably launch under the guise of providing an optimized mobile experience, which will no doubt be the case. But it will also be the first step in moving Android upstream. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some early ports of Android over to a couple of the more popular ultra mobile computing platforms starting to come on to the market – devices that blur the line between laptop and phone. This is a broad category, and will likely be the highest growth component of the computer market over the next several years. They can gain serious market share simply by being a more attractive platform in this space than Windows Mobile – something that isn’t that hard to do. And with devices like the iPhone validating the viability of application delivery in this space, it is clear that the market is open to moving in a new direction.

Don’t judge your first experience with Chrome in terms of it being just a browser. It isn’t.

There’s a lot more going on here than a simple play for browser market share. This is a “hearts and minds” battle for the future direction of computing, taking place between the two largest players in the market. This is completely different from anything we saw during the “browser wars”.

And this time around, Microsoft’s luck may be running out…