Google's Unique Position and Imperative Need for Browser Interactivity

By Timothy M. O'Brien
May 28, 2009

What struck me the most about Google's I/O Keynote on Wednesday wasn't the technology announcements or the futuristic vision of a 3D interface running in the browser. It was the almost radical emphasis on openness and cooperation that Google displayed by asking Mozilla and Palm to be featured components of the presentation. While Google develops a mobile platform and a web browser, they are evidently not averse to inviting "the competition" to the launch party. While this would be surprising for almost any other "technology company", Google can get away with it because they occupy a unique position: they own the largest Platform in the world and they lack an overall competitor.

Google isn't a technology company, it is a Platform, and they happen to be the only player in the market. While they have "competitors" in almost every line of business they run, they don't "compete" with anyone yet because no one else has a comparable Platform: not Microsoft, not "Big Media", not even the US government as demonstrated by the slide detailing traffic statistics for Whitehouse.gov's Google Moderator. Google's investments in technology are less about the technology itself and more about leverage gained by participating in the ecosystem that has developed around the Google Platform.

Old Wine, New Browsers

imperative-plea-google-html-5.pngAll of the technology I saw in Wednesday's keynote was an incremental improvement upon technologies already available in the market in the form of a plugin or a native application. While developers were salivating over the idea of a truly rich browser application, users don't care if they are looking at a SWF or a VIDEO tag in HTML 5 and gamers invest enough time in World of Warcraft not to mind that it is written as a native application. As developers we should realize that unless a user can be provided with some reason to care, a 3D application in a browser or a pretty drawing with the HTML 5 Canvas is indistinguishable from the same result rendered in a native application or a SWF. Vic Gundotra said as much when he discussed the long struggle to convince the industry to adopt XMLHttpRequest. Without a "killer application", there will be nothing pushing people to upgrade to browsers that support HTML 5.

Without that "killer app", there is a good chance that the future of the Web will be what it is today plus a bit more Adobe Flash or some version of Apple's App Store running on some soon-to-be-ubiquitous tablet computing device. In other words, Google realizes the limitations of web applications when compared to native counterparts. The expansion of capability for the Web is essential for the continued relevance of Google as a Platform. Will the future be a world in which gamers play World of Warcraft on a Cocoa-based native client on a 10" computing tablet switching over to an Adobe AIR client like Twhirl to communicate with a network of friends? Or, will the future be one in which we fire up a browser to do everything?

Our Choice (for 2012): Browser or Native

This is certainly an interesting "fork in the road", and it is clear to see how HTML 5 and rich browser experience aligns with Google's interests. Despite Google's massive influence, I still don't think we can discount the importance of native, non-browser applications. Inertia is powerful and the Web moves very slowly. Broader adoption of browser-based applications is imperative for Google's continued growth and relevance.

HTML 5 will be usable for consumer-oriented applications maybe in a year, probably more like 3 years given the fact that few will be buying a new computer or upgrading an OS during this prolonged recession. While HTML 5 provides some compelling features, the only way we're going to see any level of adoption among site developers is if there is a rapid, tectonic shift in browser statistics. The recent stats suggest that Internet Explorer accounts for approximately 2/3rds of the market. Unfortunately, with IE, Microsoft has almost perfect leverage over the market. We could see a half-effort to support video and canvas in IE over the next few years, and if this happens we should expect Google to attempt and end-run around Microsoft by pushing Chrome as an alternative.

I think you'll be able to look back at Google I/O 2009 in 2012 as being ahead of its time, but the big question is how far ahead of the time are they. The answer depends on a number of strategic players in technology and yesterday's keynote was the opening act in a long kabuki dance of strategic moves. My prediction: if Microsoft plays nice and fully supports HTML 5 in the next six months in IE 8, you will be using it profitable in 2011. If Microsoft does not play nice, and IE 8 continues to have limited support for HTML 5, Google will start to push Chrome as a replacement and start to use Android on netbooks and tablets to send a message to Redmond.


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