EOF - The Browser Platform

by Doc Searls

What Netscape was to Web 1.0, Google is to Web 2.0. Like Netscape, Google is Net-native, pioneering, hacker-friendly, generous and likable. It charges for some stuff, but it gives away the most popular stuff for free. That's because it groks the Because Effect: you make money because of what you give away for free. Netscape made money with server software because it gave away the browser. Google makes money with advertising because it gives away search—and a growing portfolio of other services and applications that create vast new environments where advertising can be placed.

But, one gets major déjà vu watching Google succeed at doing exactly what Netscape wanted to do more than a decade ago, which was make the Web itself into a platform, with the browser serving as a kind of operating system. Netscape failed that mission for a variety of reasons, the most obvious of which was taunting Microsoft. In a long Wired story about the Microsoft antitrust case (www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.11/microsoft_pr.html), John Hieleman wrote:

...here was Andreessen publicly proclaiming in the summer of 1995 that Netscape's plan was to reduce Windows to “a poorly debugged set of device drivers.” “They didn't save it up”, Myhrvold said. “They f*cking pulled up alongside us and said, 'Hey, sorry, that guy's already history.'”

The tactic drove Redmond into a rage. The day after Andreessen's quote appeared in the press, John Doerr, the prominent venture capitalist and Netscape board member, received a chilling e-mail from Jon Lazarus, one of Gates' key advisers. In its entirety, it read, “Boy waves large red flag in front of herd of charging bulls and is then surprised to wake up gored.”

That was back when Microsoft was still, as Bill Gates loved to say, “hard core”. It was at the top of its game, which was Xtreme Business Hardball. There are legal limits on how hard you can play that game, as Microsoft found out when the feds went after the company. But Netscape's wounds were also self-inflicted. As I put it in “The Shrinking Subject” in 2000 (www.linuxjournal.com/article/4159), “For a year or two, Netscape looked like it could do no wrong. It was a Miata being chased down a mountain road by a tractor trailer. As long as it moved fast and looked ahead, there was no problem with the truck behind. But at some point, Netscape got fixated on the rear-view mirror. That's where it was looking when it drove off the cliff.”

It also failed to execute. As I put it in that same article, “Worst of all, it bloated the browser from a compact, single-purpose tool to an immense contraption that eventually included authoring software, a newsgroup reader, a conferencing system and an e-mail client—all of which were done better by standalone applications.”

Today, Netscape is a skin mounted on an AOL wall. Netscape.com now redirects to netscape.aol.com. And the last Netscape Navigator-branded browser rolled off the line early this year. Meanwhile, Google has authoring software (Blogger), a whole e-mail system (Gmail), all of Usenet, Google Groups, an on-line calendar, a document system and lots of other stuff. Some of it (Google Toolbar, Gmail) can bloat a browser, but only if the user wants it. Otherwise, Google has seemed content to let its spin-off, Mozilla, with Firefox, gradually eat away at Microsoft's dominant browser share—both by being a good product and by serving as host to an endless variety of extensions and plugins.

That is, until early September 2008. That's when Google announced Chrome—a new browser that really does serve the role of an operating system. Google explained Chrome through a 39-page series of illustrations in comic book style by the brilliant Scott McCloud (www.google.com/googlebooks/chrome). With Chrome, tabs aren't just for Web pages. They're for processes, “each having its own memory and its own copy of the global data structure”. Sound familiar? The doc adds, “We're applying the same kind of process isolation you find in modern operating systems. Separate processes rendering separate tabs.”

Chrome uses WebKit, the open-source rendering engine that began as KDE's KHTML software library, then grew through work by Apple and a list of other companies that now include Nokia, Trolltech, Adobe and Google. Chrome also adds a pile of other new browser building materials, including Gears and the V8 JavaScript engine. All are open source (using the BSD license).

The Chrome comic concludes, “We hope v8's performance will set a new bar, and that the other development teams will continue to improve in this space. Because if you look at any other system that's become faster over time, what happens is you get bigger, better, more inventive apps.”

Especially Google's huge back-end apps that run in the cloud. In his blog, Nick Carr writes, “To Google, the browser has become a weak link in the cloud system—the needle's eye through which the outputs of the company's massive data centers usually have to pass to reach the user—and as a result, the browser has to be rethought, revamped, retooled, modernized. Google can't wait for Microsoft or Apple or the Mozilla Foundation to make the changes...so Google is jump-starting the process with Chrome.”

Netscape may have lost the “browser war” long ago, but Google is winning at a different game entirely—one in which the browser is just a way of organizing applications, documents and other things users need to make the most of where they all now live, which is on the Net—not on a desktop operating system. And, let's not forget that most of the cloud's services run on Linux servers, including nearly all of Google's.

At the time of this writing, Chrome is still available only for Windows. Google promises Mac and Linux versions as soon as possible. When Chrome comes out on Linux, it will be interesting to see if it will be to Linux's advantage to have a browser, rather than an operating system, serving as an application framework. If that's the case, maybe the best-debugged set of device drivers will finally win on the desktop too.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and a fellow with both Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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