Google’s Three New Web Browsers

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I remember watching the technology preview of Google wave and being hugely impressed by the implied implementation, particularly when it included support for Internet Explorer. Anytime a company can press the edges of the web browser as an application delivery platform it’s always impressive.

It turns out that it’s slightly less impressive (or impressive for different reasons) than I previously thought. Google Wave will require users to install the Google Chrome Frame browser plug-in, which purports to offer features of HTML5 to IE users. This includes the <canvas> tag and “improved javascript support”, which I assume means V8.

Microsoft has, through their actions an inactions, said “We’re not that interested in HTML5”. With Google Chrome Frame Google has said “well, maybe your users as, so take your medicine”.

This is interesting for a whole lot of reasons. On one hand, it means Google Wave isn’t really “html” for the majority of Internet users. It means that they have to install a browser plug-in. It’s a play reminiscent of the early browser wars; I vaguely remember someone tried to being an ActiveX plugin to Netscape back in the day. It’s not clear to me if this means people stuck dealing with the Khaki Fist (the majority of IE 6 users) will be able to use Wave.

On the other hand it’s a plug-in that purports to bring an “open-standard” (a loaded term, but that’s another discussion) to users when the browser vendor itself has passed. Not to mention it’s yet another piece of technology that Google’s putting under the Chrome brand. So far we have a Browser, an Operating System, and now a plug-in for IE. It’s also Google’s second browser plugin that provides web developers with an additional API, but one that’s more likely to be widely adopted given the buzz around Google Wave. From a branding and cohesion standpoint this is shades of Microsoft’s .NET

From a strategic point of view, if the first Browser Wars were WWII, what’s going on with HTML5 is more like the spy game of the 50s and 60s.

What this Means for Web Developers

For work-a-day web developers this essentially continues the balkanization of the browser as a universal platform. Google has, essentially, created a new web browser called “IE Running Google Chrome”. If you want to get really cynical about it, they’ve actually released three new web browsers, “IE 6 Running Google Chrome”, “IE 7 Running Google Chrome”, and “IE 8 Running Google Chrome”. While the plug-in claims a unified HTML5 runtime for all versions of Internet Explorer, we all know software has bugs, especially open source software, and especially especially software with no direct revenue model. It’s not clear how consistent the plug-in runs on all three browsers.

Fortunately, Google has done the semi-responsible thing here and web pages will not use Google Chrome Frame features by default. There’s a meta tag you can use to turn on Google Chrome Frame features.

<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="chrome=1">

Of course, like all these meta tag solutions there’s no guarantee that things will stay this way, but for now Google’s playing by the established rules. Assuming this tag works as advertised web developers should be able to safely ignore Google Chrome Frame unless they want to leverage its feature set.

Originally published September 23, 2009
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