In-Depth

Can Chrome Lure Developers?

Google advances its JavaScript-centric Web dev strategy.

When Google Inc. jumped into the browser pool last month by releasing the Windows beta of its open source browser Chrome, the widely anticipated move shook the IT industry.

An offshoot of Google's open source Chromium project, reviewers praised the beta software for important innovations, including the speedy V8 JavaScript virtual machine engine and the use of distinct processes to boost browser responsiveness and crash resistance. The browser's WebKit rendering engine is the same framework used in many Mac OS X apps, including Safari. Mac OS X and Linux versions of Chrome are under development.

But the most important impact that Chrome may have is the one least talked about: Its role in advancing Google's broad platform ambitions.

"I thought it was very interesting that in their announcement, Google came right out and said it, using the magic words: It's a platform," observes Brad Silverberg, who at Microsoft in the mid-1990s guided the launch of Windows 95 and led Redmond's successful "Internet turnaround" effort.

"Clearly Google has the depth and breadth of talent, as well as a deep understanding of ... developing Web apps to be a serious contender," says Silverberg, the founding partner of venture captial firm Ignition Partners. "A question that remains is, how serious is Google? Is this something really important to them, or just something that's meant to distract Microsoft?"

Just in Time, Scripted
If Chrome and Google's platform efforts are distractions, they're effective ones. Chrome promises to significantly improve the capabilities and performance of JavaScript code in Web applications, positioning the dynamic scripting language as a credible alternative to proprietary frameworks like Adobe Flex and Microsoft Silverlight. Chrome includes the V8 JavaScript engine, which uses just-in-time compilation to speed code execution. Mozilla has a similar project, called TraceMonkey, in the works for its Firefox browser.

V8 employs "a pretty slick technique" to enable the compiled JavaScript to maintain its dynamic character, observes Andrew Brust, chief of new technology at consultancy twenty six New York, in an e-mail exchange.

"What Google is trying to do is turn the browser 'scripting' environment-I use scare-quotes because once the script's compiled, it's not really script anymore-into a just-in-time compiler that turns the client-side component of Web applications into true binary executables," Brust explains. "Really, this means that V8 in Chrome competes with the CLR [Common Language Runtime] in Silverlight."

Brendan Eich agrees. As chief technology officer at Mozilla Corp. and the creator of the JavaScript programming language, he says that advancements in HTML, JavaScript and JIT-compiled JavaScript engines are changing the decision-making environment for developers. He notes that HTML 5 will include the <canvas> tag for JavaScript-driven animation and advanced graphics manipulation.

"The real graphics hotness will be happening on the canvas and it'll all be JavaScript programs," Eich says. "So I think that will mean you'll see an evolution of toolkits, higher-layer graphical toolkits, scene graphs, libraries and physics libraries for games-things like that will emerge and give Flash games a run for their money."

The upshot, Eich says, is that developers will no longer need to automatically turn to proprietary frameworks like Adobe AIR and Silverlight to deliver robust Web applications. They can craft more complex behaviors directly in JavaScript instead.

Silverberg draws an interesting parallel, noting JavaScript's popularity among Web developers: "Just like, while Visual Basic can't be used for everything, it was a critical tool in promoting Windows development, perhaps the most important tool during the establishment of Windows as a platform," he says. "With JIT compilation and offline support, JavaScript will now compete more effectively against other RIA [rich Internet application] frameworks."

Or will it? Peter O'Kelly, principal analyst for research outfit O'Kelly Consulting, says a lot of developers may balk at this pitch. "I think there are a lot of people in the .NET and Java camps that say you really shouldn't be building heavyweight applications in scripting languages like JavaScript," he says.

No surprise, Microsoft is among them.

"Can a just-in-time compiled JavaScript target close the gap of what developers can accomplish with technologies like Flash and Silverlight?" asks Brian Goldfarb, director of Developer Platform and Tools at Microsoft. "The short answer is no. There are a whole host of things that you can do in Silverlight that you just can't do with JavaScript running inside a Web browser, such as HD media, complex animation and 'Deep Zoom' on media assets."

The Google Web Toolkit offers a path to robust JavaScript development, says a Google spokesperson in an e-mail.

"Dealing with JavaScript is not always easy, and while JavaScript tools have come a long way, they're still rather limited compared to the rich toolset offered by something like Java, a strongly typed programming language with great IDEs, debugging support, etc.," the spokesperson writes. "Google Web Toolkit is intended to make development easier. It gives you a way to write your application in Java, using whichever IDE and tools you like, and then have that application compile to JavaScript so that it can target the browser as the client."

Developer Perspectives
Ultimately, it will be up to developers to decide which tools, languages, frameworks and platforms they opt to work with for their Web app projects. One thing is certain: Google's JavaScript-centric strategy has programmers talking.

"It will be interesting to see what Silverlight's story is surrounding Chrome, and then what it causes other browser vendors to do in terms of their own JavaScript-rendering speed," says Vishwas Lele, chief technology officer of Applied Information Sciences Inc., a Reston, Va.-based consultancy.

Lele believes that runtimes such as Silverlight will be better suited for rich functionality. "If Chrome gains market share, at the very least [Microsoft, Adobe and Mozilla] will have to improve the performance of their JavaScript engines. That has to be done, there's no question about it," Lele explains.

Rockford Lhotka, principal technology evangelist at Golden Valley, Minn.-based Magenic Technologies Inc. and a contributor to Redmond Developer News' sister publication Visual Studio Magazine, said on a panel at VSLive! New York last month that he believes Google is targeting Chrome as an alternative to Silverlight and Flash.

"What they're really doing, I think, is building a JavaScript-based programming platform, where they're going to more or less say, 'You really don't need Flash or Silverlight, what you need is the Google Gears, the Google Compiler-basically, come play in our world,'" Lhotka said. "We're shaping up for the next two or three years being a really healthy competitive war between Flash, Silverlight and the JavaScript worlds, and I personally look at Silverlight and I'm biased-I like it. But whether it's the one that becomes dominant over time, it'll be fun to watch."

Richard Hale Shaw, CEO, Richard Hale Shaw Group "Microsoft does complete, utter, crummy, crappy work when they don't have competition. They know it and those who have been around the business for awhile know it too."
Richard Hale Shaw, CEO, Richard Hale Shaw Group

Google did well to commit to open Web technologies with Chrome, added Richard Hale Shaw, CEO of Richard Hale Shaw Group, a consultancy in Cambridge, Mass. "I think it makes a lot of sense for Google to invent Chrome because they leverage existing technologies," said Shaw, who was on the same panel as Lhotka. "Heck, that's what Web services are-it's just leveraging HTTP and XML. There's nothing scientific about it at all."

Shaw pointed out that whatever the merits and results of Chrome and its JavaScript underpinnings, the browser has already accomplished something significant. "Microsoft does complete, utter, crummy, crappy work when they don't have competition. They know it and those who have been around the business for awhile know it too," Shaw said. "Historically we've seen unbelievable troughs in their development efforts when they don't have to compete. Their Visual Studio products were terrible between 1996 and the release of the Framework in 2002. We saw them panic and get real. Let's keep them panicked."

Google: The Unplatform
The release of Chrome and its alignment with JavaScript have raised all sorts of questions around Google's plans to launch a truly strategic Web development and application platform. In fact, the speculation mirrors the original buzz around Netscape, which sparked talk of its browser replacing Windows in the mid-1990s.

It was a threat that Silverberg, as head of the then newly minted Internet Platform and Tools Division at Microsoft, helped put down. He says that Google brings a lot more to the table than Netscape ever did, including more applications, developer talent and cash. And Google clearly thinks the time is now for a Web-only platform.

Brad Silverberg, Founding Partner, Ignition Partners "I know a bunch of ex-Microsoft folks who went to Google with the idea of building a platform, but most have left by now, saying Google just doesn't have platform DNA."
Brad Silverberg, Founding Partner, Ignition Partners

"The Web has become the de facto platform of our era-the platform for application developers. Instead of writing for Windows or Mac or Linux, developers can instead write for the Web, targeting the client that you can be sure every user has: the Web browser," according to the Google spokesperson. "Google is betting big on this open Web platform, and we're deeply interested in advancing this platform to enable richer, more powerful applications."

Preparing for IE8

Even as Chrome has earned market share, developers are preparing for the arrival of Microsoft Internet Explorer 8, which went to beta 2 in August. Dev shops need to get ready for the new browser, says Robert Boedigheimer, a programmer with the Schwan Food Co., who last month gave a presentation at the VSLive! New York conference highlighting key new capabilities of IE8.

Boedigheimer urges developers to begin testing IE8 right away. They should consider taking advantage of improvements to AJAX, CSS and the Selectors API, as well as Accelerators and Web Slices. Among the issues highlighted in his presentation:

  • Browser Modes
  • Document Compatibility
  • Accelerators
  • Web Slices
  • XmlHttpRequest
  • AJAX Enhancements
  • CSS Improvements
  • Developer Tools
Get all the details here.

-- Jeffrey Schartz

Silverberg says if anything is going to hold back Google's platform ambitions, it's Google itself. "I know a bunch of ex-Microsoft folks who went to Google with the idea of building a platform, but most have left by now, saying Google just doesn't have platform DNA," he explains.

"They left [Microsoft] because they believed in the Internet and they didn't think Microsoft would ever really get the Internet," he adds. "They saw Google got the Internet but didn't get the platform. These were all super-star kinds of people-the exact people I would hire if I wanted to build a platform, and especially if I were running Google. But many of them have left Google, frustrated with the lack of platform DNA, commitment and an overly consensus-oriented decision-making process."

That weakness extends to Google's ability to deliver robust developer tools and support to compete with Microsoft's resources, says twenty six New York's Brust. Google's ability to support advanced development for the V8 JavaScript rendering engine is a critical issue.

"If Google wants real momentum for V8, then they need real tools for V8. Most corporate developers like and need rich IDEs to get their work done," Brust says. "Microsoft is currently second-to-none in this department, and they recognize how much that helps Windows as a platform. They get it."

Ultimately, he explains, what Chrome, V8 and Google Gears have done-at least for now-is capture developer attention.

"The real threat to Microsoft here isn't Chrome and V8 per se, but rather their influence in encouraging people to imagine, and even yearn for, a world of software that's fundamentally different from today's Windows landscape," says Brust. "Chrome, V8 and Gears are, at the very least, a powerful proof-of-concept that may change minds, even if they don't completely win them."
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