NEW YORK — In a session billed as the browser wars up close and personal, key Microsoft, Mozilla and Google representatives spoke about the past present and future of the browser platform as they see it.
Despite having reps from three heralded browser teams that compete for user and developer attention, the session was pretty subdued. But what could really expect? Despite the best laid plans of my good pals Almaer and Galbraith, the browser boys kept things tame and refused to sling any mud. But the Ajaxians did a masterful job, not only of corralling topnotch talent to speak on their panel, but also of getting things going with a series of relevant questions ranging from Microsoft’s support for various web standards, to Google’s plans to grab market share, to how will react to new competition.
Yet, one of the issues that stood out to me was that of developer discontent. When the Ajaxians opened up questioning to the audience, an attendee stood up and said Google’s announcement of its new browser “was greeted with shock and horror,” by him. “This is hell,” he said to applause from the audience. And he followed up with a question to the panel: “What are you going to do about it?”
The guy was referring to developers often having to choose which browser to support or having to create variations of their applications to run on different browser platforms. And based on the reaction of the crowd, developers want to see something done, whether it’s standards or what.
Chris Wilson of Microsoft said he recommended investment in test suites. “Getting more tests and test suites will help some.” Wilson also said Microsoft has addressed the issue of compatibility in Internet Explorer 8. Meanwhile, the attendee jokingly asked if Microsoft could just kill off IE 6. Wilson said there is a user base for IE6 that Microsoft has to support.
In another telling point in the session, blogger Hank Williams asked the panel if the browser was becoming the new operating system. “It’s apples and oranges comparing an operating system and a web browser,” Vafai said. “While there are some similarities they are two very different things,” Vafai said in Google’s “do no evil” tone of response. He said there are some things in a browser that are operating system competitive such as font rendering. But, “it’s not even clear what you could do to replace an operating system with a browser
Of course, when Google announced its Chrome browser that was the first thing many observers said — that Google was moving to replace the operating system.
“It’s already happening,” Eich said. “You don’t see as many Windows apps being built per se; browsers have already intermediated operating systems. This is the kind of evolution you see when platforms grow platforms on their backs.”
Galbraith asked Eich, who was seated between Wilson and Vafai, how he felt with Microsoft having such a high percentage of the browser market on one side of him and fierce competitor and upstart browser entrant Google on the other. “We’ve got them right where we want them.” he said
Eich then said that although Google is a mighty competitor, Mozilla has been doing open source software for years and although WebKit, the engine for Google’s Chrome browser has been around for some time, Google’s challenge will be to move it forward with its own developer community. “You can’t just sprinkle open source pixie dust on it” and it works like magic, Eich said.
Meanwhile, asked if Google’s goal was to take market share away from Microsoft and Mozilla, Vafai in more do-no-evil speak said: “The primary goal of Google Chrome is to push forward web development.” He also said Google plans to implement the features in the HTML 5 specification. “Google wants to see web applications do well. If it adds competition to the market and makes web apps done better, great.”
Please. Of course Google wants to take share away from Microsoft and Mozilla. And it will.
Vafai also noted that Google intends to support add-ons, “like the Firefox extensions and Greasemonkey scripts, and we intend to do both of those with Google Chrome.” He said the founder of the Greasemonkey extension now works on the Chrome team.
Eich said add-ons in Firefox are a potential source of instability, but also a vehicle for innovation. Wilson said “add-ons have been part of IE and the general pattern of extending the platform will continue.”
Galbraith asked Wilson if Microsoft is holding back support for the Canvas element of HTML 5 because of its proprietary Silverlight rich Internet application technology. “We don’t get to choose whether there is an open standard called Canvas or HTML 5,” Wilson said. “Silverlight is an end-to-end platform that’s not the platform my team works on. We look at the need for vector graphics and I never said to my team: ‘Hey, let’s just use Silverlight; we don’t need vector graphics support.’ Vector graphics support is one of the things we’ll see next.”
For his part, Eich said Mozilla has implemented many HTML 5 features including Canvas, offline support and Web Workers. Firefox has taken the lead in including HTML 5 features,” he said.
Vafai added that “all the credit for HTML 5 features in Chrome goes to the WebKit team. Google Gears also supports HTML 5 features, he added. Vafai said Google has not done a lot to extend the WebKit platform. With Chrome, “it was an intended goal to match Safari,” he said.
Moreover, Wilson said: “We took a lot of functionality we’ve shipped in IE 8 beta 1 and 2 from the HTML 5 spec, like the local store work.”
Wilson also said IE 8 features tooling with “lots of polish” and has added profiling. “Whenever you build an application it’s really important to have a rich tool set on each browser,” he said. With IE 8, “you don’t have to go into FrontPage or Visual Studio and hack a fix,” for problems, he said. Meanwhile, Vafai said Google Chrome has broad support for debugging.
Wilson also said Microsoft has a representative working on the incubation group for a “geo-location” specification for browsers. However, “the challenge there is user privacy,” he said.