September 01, 2008

The New World of Browser Choices is All About the Hooks

In a perfect technology world, every Web site and every Web application would perform the same way across all Web browsers, operating systems and mobile devices. But we're not in a perfect world, and Web surfers' experiences are being increasingly determined by browser-specific plug-ins, third party applications and tie-ins with the host operating system. The result makes it less likely that one Web browser user can make a switch, after having invested in one specific application to get a tailored user experience.

Today's big news/rumor is that Google is preparing their own Web browser, called Chrome, which is based on WebKit, the same foundation underlying Apple's Safari browser. While the news hasn't been confirmed by Google outright, all indications make it appear to be true.

(Update: Google has now made it official)

There Are A Lot of Questions About Chrome

With news of Chrome, Web enthusiasts are already asking questions - will it support the GreaseMonkey scripts designed for FireFox? Will it be released for Mac OS X on the same day it's released for Linux and Windows? And, as it's so early, at least the latter question can't be answered. But assuming they are using WebKit, it's unlikely GreaseMonkey scripts could be used out of the box.

Today's Web Browsing Experience Comes Down To:
  1. Speed
  2. Reliability
  3. Compatibility
  4. Data Portability
  5. Extensibility
It is no longer enough to load the fastest. The time when you could put Internet Explorer and Netscape or Safari and Firefox side by side and show me how quickly they loaded HTML pages or performed JavaScript renders is gone. People just expect the browsers to work. And if they crash even once a day, users are unhappy. So Speed and Reliability are assumed.

Compatibility, for the most part, is a small issue at this point. It's a rare site that says "Please Use Internet Explorer" or "Your Operating System is Not Yet Supported", although that does happen. That's why initial response to Internet Explorer 8, beta 2, was so tepid, as it really did fail the basic expectations. (See Steven Hodson's critique)

That leaves what I see as the most important points going forward: Data portability and extensibility, and the biggest trojan horse I see going forward to impact the browser marketplace is the iPhone.

If Google Announces Chrome, Does Apple Put it In the iTunes App Store?

Apple made a custom, light-weight, version of Safari for the iPhone, which makes their Web browser the default browsing experience for what's the world's most talked-about cell phone. Using Safari on the iPhone makes it more likely that you will use Safari on your Mac or your PC because it can synchronize your bookmarks, and unify your browsing experience. Changing bookmarks on your desktop means they are changed on the iPhone.

Today, there are no alternative Web browsers for the iPhone. No Firefox, no Opera, and definitely, no Internet Explorer. While Google and Apple appear to be friends, and Google makes applications for the iTunes Application Store, and therefore, the iPhone, can you see Apple opening up the option for users to browse in Chrome instead? And even if they did, the likelihood of Chrome's behavior being mirrored to the desktop, via iTunes, is slim.

Apple playing the role of gatekeeper to the iTunes Store will be a bigger deal as the iPhone increases in market share.

Could Mozilla/Firefox Apps Be Re-written for WebKit?

There are scads of great GreaseMonkey scripts designed for some of the social networks I use, including FriendFeed. In addition, the Google Reader overlay, Feedly, only works in Firefox, so as long as I stay in Safari, I don't use the product at all. To date, Safari has badly trailed Firefox and IE in terms of getting add-ons, like browser toolbars and plug-ins, but if Google were to enter the market with another WebKit-based browser, that could shake things up.

So What About the Hooks?

As a Mac user and a MobileMe customer, my e-mail, Web browser bookmarks, and address book are synchronized across my devices, both laptop and iPhone, and the data is available online from any computer, in the cloud. Because of these hooks, I'm not a good candidate to move away from Safari any time soon, and I'm more tied into Apple's infrastructure of E-mail, Address Book, and iCal than ever before.

For others, it's Google who has the hooks. From their Google Calendar to GMail and Picasa, they've trusted Google with their personal data. For these folks, Google will undoubtedly tailor Chrome to their interests, and it would be hard for competitors like Apple and Microsoft to make the interoperability any better. But this, of course, leaves out the iPhone scenario, which leads us to Android, Google's approach to make a next-generation phone operating system, distributed through multiple handset partners.

Now, instead of seeing that a browser is faster, or more pretty, or has more features, it's more important that we can move our data around between devices and that the applications don't hiccup. We may not have seen it at first, but as the major browser vendors start to tie in to the applications you use every day, they're getting more of a hook into you as a customer, and reducing your potential to use an alternative product. Even before we see Google's Chrome in action, I know it will take being lighter, faster, and as reliable, to start, plus featuring the type of hooks that Safari does today, on the iPhone, to make me consider it anything more than a hobby and as a primary browser alternative.

We've come a long way since Microsoft embedded Internet Explorer in the Windows operating system and was deemed a monopolist, but that won't stop the big players from playing favorites with their own applications and giving you reasons to stick around.