Google launched Gears last May, and for the first year of its release it was considered a minor, niche product that a few developers and users may take advantage of to allow offline access to web applications. You can probably recall the arguments at the time: who needs offline access, connectivity is everywhere anyway, not enough apps will support this etc. It wasn’t until a year later and only a few weeks ago, that Google revealed its ace card: Gears-powered messaging for MySpace that is super-accelerated. Google had entered the race to provide the new web API, and for a year almost nobody had noticed.
The browser of the future is likely to become the virtual machine that hosts almost all applications. In this scenario the operating system becomes transparent, so Microsoft has something to protect (the source of its profits), as does Adobe, who currently provides the most common and consistent web virtual machine with Flash. Google has made no secret of its plans to target and harm Microsoft, and they know that the best way to go about that is to make the operating system irrelevant by moving up a layer and turning the browser into a standard, but powerful, virtual machine for applications.
With slow standards development blocking the path to better and faster, yet still free and open web application development, Google decided to take on that market itself through Google Gears. The idea was simple: bring forward the features of tomorrow’s web technologies into today’s browsers. The specific features mostly came from the new HTML5 specifications that standards bodies had been spending years working on. Instead of waiting for them to hit production, Google simply implemented them as best they could by extending the browser through a plugin. They would sacrifice standards in the short-term (and essentially ‘figure it out later’) in order to bring their web applications up to a rich next-generation standard from where they could stand up to Flash and Silverlight.
The first release would focus on a few features proposed in HTML5 that were considered most important: client-based structured and object storage. Because of the choice to implement client-storage first, Gears would be framed as an offline application solution for the next year, which if not intentional, certainly served them well as competitors likely didn’t notice the broader goal. Google could have developed and released their own browser, there was speculation and rumors in blogs stating exactly that, but the browser market was competitive, tedious and generally a pain. Besides, even after having developed a new browser they would have to wait for critical market mass while they drove users to adopting it, and there would still be the other 70, 80 or 90 percent of the market not using their browser who might still want to use Google apps.
The shortcut was to skip past the browsers and add a new layer above them – the Google web layer. All the popular browsers provide mechanisms by which developers can extend their functionality, so all Google had to do was to developer a plugin for each browser. It could have its new web API on potentially 100% of desktops without asking users to switch and most importantly, in a manner much faster and less painful than entering the browser market. Browsers would now do all the boring bits: rendering HTML, presenting an interface, user options etc. while Google leveraged what was there and dashed ahead.
Today Gears supports a whole host of new features, some that it has in common with the other next generation web API efforts from Microsoft and Adobe while others are a result of their own innovation. Function calls available to developers include background processes (no more hourglass), client-side image manipulation, location-awareness, better file uploading and a local database inside the browser.
It has been a long time since the last platform war, but each time that technology experiences one you can see the biggest companies fall and the smallest companies prosper. Add open source to the equation and the result may still be that no single company dominates. With so much at stake and such large companies involved, we are surely about to witness a long and protracted battle. Only time will tell if the Google approach to taking the web forward will work.
This post is part of a series written by Nik Cubrilovic on the Next-Gen Web, read other posts here.