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The New New Browser Wars

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In thinking about the desktop/web hybrid platforms that have launched or are about to be launched, I’ve decided that even if last year they were overhyped, this year we’re going to see real adoption and applications. But that presents an interesting problem for developers and eventually, for users. The vast array of options and functionalities not only makes the web experience different for different users, but it makes developing sites more complicated, much like the rise of different browsers and the proliferation of Flash has in the past.

I’ve written about MySpace using Google Gears for email, but apparently WordPress is going to take advantage of Gears in its next version, too. Twhirl uses Adobe Air to bring Twitter to the desktop and a fun program called Snackr pulls random bits from your RSS feeds to stream across the desktop. We’re still waiting for Prism from Mozilla, and yesterday Yahoo launched BrowserPlus. Again, the sheer number of these presents its own set of problems.

I have copies of Air, Gears and BrowserPlus on my machine, and each have their pros and their cons. Air essentially brings the browser offline, while BrowserPlus runs outside of the browser to make your desktop an extension of the web. Gears runs inside the browser, making Firefox even more unstable, but does make my web browsing faster. (Getting it to work with Gmail is my top request, mind you.)

It’s my job to play around with these sites, but I can’t imagine the average user wanting to download three or four different programs in order to optimize their browsing experience. I still get irritated about upgrading Flash. As for developers wanting to take advantage of extending web functionality, deciding which platform to use will be an exercise in decision-making. Do they go with a platform that has more downloads, or better features? Do they integrate with several platforms if the feature sets are similar, or hope that users download multiple programs? These are similar questions they had to ask when designing for Explorer, Firefox or Netscape.

Skylar Woodward, a software engineer at Yahoo who helped build the BrowserPlus program, thinks eventually some of the code behind these efforts will be opened up to the community, making it easier for developers to implement multiple platforms on their sites. In the meantime, he champions the idea of “graceful degradation.” In that scenario, a user can see the site without downloading a platform, he just might miss out on a few nifty features in the process.

So for those of you too lazy to click through on those installs, welcome to the gracefully degraded Internet.

13 Responses to “The New New Browser Wars”

  1. I could see Air being included with Flash so in the future upgrades are seamless to the user. Adobe will probably like this model so that once the user installs Air/Flash, Adobe has freedom to add stuff in the future disguised as a Flash update or anything else and roll out new features.

    That seems like the best model compared to Gears and BrowserPlus.

  2. Stacey Higginbotham

    T, I spend a lot of time on airplanes and on corporate campuses with iffy 3G and no access to WiFi, which makes my web apps useless. These things can be really helpful. They also can add functionality beyond offline access.

  3. andrew

    These worries are probably only experienced by those who live on the edge of web development. If the idea of desktop app bound to the net is sound, then one or two players will shake out. Then most developers will write to whatever model and API that player uses.

    I’m not sold on the hybrid app model, but we’ll know in a year or so if it is a viable business model.

  4. quetwo

    @reilly / @Nima,
    Silverlight has nothing to do with the platforms that they mentioned in this article. Many people think Silverlight is a competitor to AIR. IT IS NOT. Silverlight is a competitor to Flash, the animation/interaction framework from Adobe. Silverlight allows for simple animations and video to play in Windows and some Mac based browsers. AIR is a desktop runtime that allows JavaScript or Flash/Flex developers to create online/offline and desktop applications. Competitors to AIR are Gears and posibally BrowserPlus. These allow some desktop functionality, akin to AIR.

    AIR is opensource. The SDK is available from Adobe for free.

  5. Nima Negahban


    You are correct Silverlight is akin to air, but upon further investigation it has many of its own unique features and vice versa.

    In reality only these ‘universe size’ sites can afford to experiment with these things ‘in-production’ simply because they have so much traffic and such a rabid user base that they can afford to. As sad as it is a large chunk of the web is using IE 6 still (some of my sites it ranges from 30% to 60% of total traffic). At a startup you simply can not afford to confuse the user or distract them from your core offering.

    The developer will most likely go with the whatever becomes ubiquitous, or embed their own layers in javascript. ExtJS is a good example of this, as is Dojo. These are extremely rich presentation layers written entirely in javascript. Granted they don’t have everything that some of the others do but they’re getting exceedingly more powerful and could at the very least provide a meta layer to the new array of browser plugins.

  6. When you look at all possible options to build desktop apps, most of them are based on building on top of platforms. We have seen this issue before when desktop widgets were starting to become popular. In the end of this game “webwidgets” became the more popular ones. But still the need for developing outside conventional screens and carriers is still there and keeps on becoming more of an issue.
    All platforms are build as downloads on platforms, AIR, Gears etc.
    Swoot created a solution based on a completely different perspective. Not a platform, but a plugin. The plugin reads objects build in the similar technology ( in the case of swoot, objects ending on .bdt). The best thing about this is the fact that all objects are server-sided. Every part of the App runs on the server, buttons, skins, functionalities etc. This provides a complete freedom of design and functionality in the way the App should act. It can act as a browser with full functionalities, it can act as a video player, rss reader and all other options….
    It brings internet to a new way of experiencing webcontent, and the best it all takes place outside of the browser, directly on the desktop.
    Looking from a different angle can create a solution sometimes for some issues. On the other hand the curiosity is there what will happen with desktop apps in general and the future of the webbrowser.
    interesting post Stacey!!

  7. Reilly

    I agree that it seems the options for development are growing, creating potential problems for users. Not to confuse the already confusing issue, but could you help me understand why/how Silverlight fits into this? To me it seems like it’s akin to Air, but not really. Is it even in the same context? Thanks.