As Google Backs Away From A Plug-in, Microsoft Rushes Towards One

apps_faceoffToday at their Bing Fall Release event, Microsoft showed off some nice updates to their search engine, including further information about how the much anticipated Twitter and Facebook data integration will work. But by far the most interesting thing they showed was the new beta version of Bing Maps. While it looked very nice, the real reason why it was so interesting is what it requires: Silverlight.

This news comes just days after Google’s revelation (thanks, in part, to our story on the upcoming Chrome for Mac beta) that they were backing away from supporting Gears in the future, in favor of HTML5. Gears is the software that Google created to allow users to use their applications while not connected to the web. But it’s also a plug-in (for all browsers except Google’s own Chrome for the PC). This is a big barrier to entry for many users. And it’s something that creates problems developing apps around it if say, a user doesn’t have Gears installed.

So it’s good to see Google step away from a plug-in even if it’s no longer proprietary (originally called “Google Gears,” they have since open-sourced it). And it makes what Microsoft is doing even more frustrating.

With Silverlight, Microsoft continues to make it clear that they intend to use this web application framework, which they developed, to power much of what they are doing on the web going forward. Again, the problem here is that not only does Microsoft control this, but it requires a plug-in to use. Sure, they’ve made the plug-in available to most browsers, including the ones by rivals Google and Apple, but it’s still a plug-in. It’s something that’s going to stop everyone from seeing the same web no matter which browser they use.

This has of course long been an issue with Microsoft. Despite a clear shift within the rest of the industry toward web standards, Microsoft long played difficult with its Internet Explorer browser. They could afford to, and maybe you could even argue that it was in their interest to, because they were so dominant. It was only when a standards-based browser, Mozilla’s Firefox, started biting off significant chunks of IE’s market share that Microsoft shifted their position to play more nicely with standards.

But even today, they still don’t play that nicely. As you can see in this video about IE9, they are still nowhere near passing the Acid3 browser test. Safari, Opera, and Chrome have all now achieved 100/100 scores on the test. Firefox has gotten a 96/100. IE? Well IE8 (the current version) gets a 20/100. And IE9, which isn’t out yet, only gets a 32/100. You can try to argue (which Microsoft does) that much of the test is meaningless to everyday browsing, but the fact remains that all its major competitors are able to pass it or are on the verge of passing it.

silverlightA humorous aside about the video linked to above is that while it’s a talk about Microsoft’s commitments to standards and interoperability with IE9, you need Silverlight to play it.

When asked about Microsoft’s shift towards requiring Silverlight for applications such as the new Bing Maps, officials from the company basically stated that they’re doing it because they had to. AJAX, the technology that powers many of the other web apps in existance today, simply isn’t powerful enough to do what they want, they reason — continuing on that it’s not about using a proprietary technology, but using the best technology out there.

The problem with this once again goes back to the idea of a unified web. If some web apps require plug-ins, the web is not going to be as seamless as it should be. And that’s why HTML5 is potentially so interesting. Because advanced components such as web video, which is now mainly powered by Adobe’s Flash plug-in, could be handled natively within the browser. (Here’s an example of a YouTube video rendered only with HTML5.)

Can Silverlight allow for more powerful web applications than standard web technology? Probably. Does the new Bing Maps look cool with seamless transitions between a map view and on-the-street city view? Yes. But another issue is: Do we really need that?

How often are you going to need (or want) to zoom around a city with 3D buildings when you really just want to look up an address? It’s a neat feature, just as it is within Google Street View or Google Earth, but it’s not really all that practical. The majority of location searches I do are on my phone where I simply want to get an address as fast as possible. I actually just had to double check if the iPhone has Street View built-in (it does) because I never, ever use that feature.

Nor do I ever really use it on the desktop. It’s useful for some select cases, like maybe if you’re buying a house and want to get a look at the neighborhood. But otherwise, it’s just a nifty feature to demo — which Microsoft did extensively today.

Again, I’m not saying it’s not cool. It is. But I’m not sure it’s worth trading the possibility of a unified web for. In fact, I know it’s not. Sadly, with Microsoft, the problem is only going to get worse, and not better. They’ve made that very clear.

[photo: Paramount Pictures]