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Technology CompaniesGoogleGoogle is wrong: The browser is not always the winner

Google is wrong: The browser is not always the winner

Google trends towards browser based solutions. That’s fine–especially in light of its primary competitor, Microsoft, which trends towards native or rich-client solutions. However, for all of the places I agree that browsers are great opportunities for apps, they are not the best solution across the board. In fact, I think the iPhone has demonstrated this well.

The engineering value of the browser is an important issue highlighted by recent decisions like Google to go forward with its Chrome OS or by statements like those from Google Engineering VP Vic Gundotra at the recent mobile phone conference, Mobilebeat, in terms of where Google is going to focus its energies and where it thinks others should too.

The point is that I think Google is boxing its ecosystem developers into a corner. Plain and simple, the browser is not the end all development platform and advocating for developers to focus on using it above all else is a mistake. Sure, some areas are fine to leverage the browser with–such as form or database driven apps. However, the browser experience is not always optimal. Just ask anyone that’s used FriendFeed in the browser on the iPhone versus let’s say Twitter via the native iPhone Tweetie app. Hands down Tweetie wins. And from what I can see, there’s very little that FriendFeed can do within the browser to bring its experience up to the value that let’s say Tweetie provides. So is FriendFeed in the browser good enough on the iPhone? Marginally. Painfully. What’s this mean? FriendFeed is a product that is vulnerable and ripe for competition on the iPhone platform. For companies that focus so heavily on the browser–above all else–despite all else–the future can be even more risky than it would be otherwise. That’s the lesson of the iPhone. That’s the lesson across the board.

I also disagree with Vic Gundotra that browsers will simply continue to improve making all browser-based solutions the better engineering choice down the road. Again, I agree for a significant class of apps, I’d agree. However, I think he’s wrong in terms of the broader value and adoption of browser-based apps over all else. Why? Because, fundamentally browsers as a platform are too weak. It’s a fundamental issue. It’s a subset issue–meaning the browser enables a great subset of solutions to shine. Not all.

Again, I think the iPhone demonstrates this. There are tens of thousands of iPhone apps because of the value. Are there as many browser pages customized to the iPhone? Doubt it.

Whether it comes to checking the weather, Twitter, restaurants, road conditions, and on and on, native wins. Browser is the backup.

For those developers that only develop for the browser, more power to you. I see the value. I get it. However, for let’s say the developer that wants to break out on their own and provide focused solutions that strongly engage users, my advice is to stay open to native solutions like those you could build for the iPhone or MID or Tablet PC or what have you. Be wary of people that tell you things like develop once for the browser or the browser platform will eventually trump all other platforms, and so on. It might be true for a subset, but you’d really need to think through whether what you want to do falls into that subset or not.

Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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14 years ago

It’s not pure browser though. There’s NativeClient for performant apps, O3D for scene-graph based 3D. Palm’s Pre showed that you could release a web-based device with some native hooks and styling libraries and make it a compelling development experience (although their developer marketing sucks – should have released the API SDK early!)

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14 years ago

Liked “Google is wrong: The browser is not always the winner” http://ff.im/-5lWeZ

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14 years ago

Totally agree. After 10 years of developing HTML and Javascript interfaces with and without libraries like Prototype or jQuery, I can’t help but feel like most HTML interfaces are ugly hacks compared to the desktop equivalent. Try building collapsable trees that support drag and drop nodes in HTML (hint: hide any guns you may have in the house before starting). How about sortable lists with resizable columns? That’s also a lot of fun. HTML 5 has some nice upgrades, but I don’t see it solving many of the problems.

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14 years ago

Chip: you see HTML5 drag events? Even supported in Firefox 3.5. http://decafbad.com/blog/2009/07/15/html5-drag-and-drop I feel your pain though – I worked with a company a few years ago on a web-based financial app. Users demanded the whole desktop app experience in it, but the frameworks at the time were stuck in the "postback" model (ASP.NET, I’m looking at you). I’m doing a lot more AJAXy style development now with GWT and I’m loving it. Infrastructure is prebuilt, the stuff that took us weeks before now takes days. And, BTW, I’ve build a collapseable tree in HTML and I know your pain 😉

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14 years ago

Matt: I haven’t tried GWT yet, but it’s on my list of things to do. I’m also cautiously optimistic about projects like Cappuccino (http://cappuccino.org/) and SproutCore (http://www.sproutcore.com/).

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14 years ago

Web interfaces are a computer-science disaster – a real step back into the stone age.

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14 years ago

Gundotra is saying the web "has won" (i.e. game over, Google hath spoken), and at the same time saying the web "*will become* the platform that matters," and that’s how things *will* play out. so is it already won, or is it going to be won? it is unclear if Gundotra was standing in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner at the time. 😀 if the web "has won," then why is Google sinking money into conventional, non-web-based apps? or into two operating systems, for that matter? Loren is spot-effing-on here.

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