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Jeff Haynie

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Google Chrome OS – it’s a great time to be a web developer

With the announcement of Google Chrome OS tonight, it’s a great time to be a web developer. (And as an aside, I’m sure Redmond isn’t partying too hard either).

google chrome os

Why does the Google Chrome OS matter?

It’s not really a surprise that Google made the announcement. It’s been widely speculated for a long time that Google was working on this project. Google has continued to express that Chrome and the Web would be the basis of how they believed applications and software services would be delivered. The Google OS is simply part of the stack that will help Google fulfill this mission.

Of course, Microsoft tried this a decade or so ago and was hit with a Department of Justice lawsuit. That had a lot of implications to the web as we know it today. For example, with the DOJ lawsuit I believe Microsoft made 2 crucial decisions that have shaped today’s web:

- It removed Sun’s hopes of making Java the de facto programming language of applications running in the browser

- It removed Microsoft’s heavy investment in Internet Explorer, essentially freezing time (from a technical standpoint) for almost a decade as IE6 became the de facto web browser we were all forced to live with (and support).

Regardless of whether the DOJ decision or Microsoft’s reaction to it, our web world was impacted in a big way.

Beware of Free

There’s been a lot of relevant discussion around Free – both the good and the bad – recently from some large web and technology luminaries: Chris Andersen and Malcolm Gladwell. A number other important people have chimed in – but I think Alex Iskold at the Read/Write web makes some of the most interesting and relevant points about Freemium.

In his post, Beware of Freemium, Alex talks about how Free can be used by elite and powerful organizations to stiffle competition, create (or further) monopolistic markets and introduce complex transactions.

Tom Robinson (of 280 North fame) tweeted the following quote:

“One scary possibility [is they] create something far less expensive than a PC which is powerful enough for Web browsing”

This quote came from Bill Gates (then Chairman of Microsoft) in May 26, 1995. This was part of the Government’s evidence against in the DOJ antitrust case against Microsoft.

Back then, Microsoft was attempting to use Free as a way to enter a new market or more likely, block an emerging, threatening market, the web. Free was the concept that Internet Explorer could be given away as part of Microsoft’s dominant operating system, Windows, to eliminate the inventor of the web browser, Netscape. Prior to this, Netscape dominated (and literally created) the browser marketplace. In the early days, Netscape even sold Navigator in stores like CompUSA. But most people at the time received a subsidized version of the product from their ISP as part of your signup package.

Microsoft would give away IE, which meant that users didn’t have to install it (or worse at the time, download it from slow Internet connections over dial up). Since it was pre-installed in the Windows OS, users would just click the cleverly named “Connect to the Internet” shortcut on the desktop, thereby securing their dominant position literally overnight.

Sun and Java

At the time, Java was becoming very popular and both Netscape and Microsoft were supporting the JRE in the browser. In fact, the popular JavaScript language was created by Netscape and named (poorly, in retrospect) because of it’s quickly rising popularity. Back then, I was recruited by CSX (in Jacksonville, Florida) to work on one of the largest and most prominent Java initiatives (literally, many multimillions) – this was JDK 1.02 timeframe for some of the Java old timers reading this. Applets were the thing and lots of us envisioned that we would build rich applications delivered through a web browser using Java.

The DOJ intervened.

The world changed after this intervention. Not overnight, but close to it. Not too longer afterwards, Microsoft stopped supported the newest version of the Java runtime inside the browser – essentially eliminating Java’s chances to own the “Java in the browser” space. My guess it was more of Microsoft giving everyone (mainly Sun, given their hand in the DOJ lawsuit) the finger.

At the same time, I believe Microsoft made a conscious decision – partly understandable given the DOJ lawsuit – to stop investing in IE.

But the damage was done. Either through evil means or through a government intervention gone bad. I’m not smart enough to know the full implications of what could have happened if they didn’t intervene. However, I can make some educated conclusions based on what has happened because of the intervention. The Web innovation – in terms of the browser itself – was stifled.

Stifled, but not forever.

AJAX was an accidental success in my opinion. Timing is always the most interesting dimension of the success equation – and probably the least understood. We always remember things in more succinct historical matters where things happened nice and neatly. AJAX is an example – in my opinion – of a number of things converging over a long period of time and it just happened, quickly.

We had been using similar techniques for AJAX for a long, long time. At CSX, we used a technique that was common for a long time where all the client-to-server remoting was done using a hidden Java applet (and a technology called LiveConnect). This provided the ability to have real socket communication between the browser and the server and passing data between the Java VM and the browser’s JavaScript using the LiveConnect bridge.

Later lots of developer’s used Flash as a similar technique.

But Microsoft was really the first to introduce the XHR concept into IE. And the first main property Microsoft used this technique for was Microsoft Exchange Web. The other browser’s followed.

Also, back then, talking to the server was generally slow. We optimized around page turns. For different reasons than we optimize them today. Back then, we optimized them because it was expensive to talk to the server. We were using 96K lines (or even better, 128K ISDN). We used JavaScript sparingly and tried to reduce images (both in size and count). That’s how we rolled back then.

AJAX came along at a time when DSL and fast Internet was virtually everywhere and by then, PCs (and Macs) had many years of Moore’s Law improvement. In fact, lots of us believed (and still do) that we weren’t hardly taking much advantage of the PC itself. We had been frozen in technology time, stuck in the browser while our laptops and desktops were introducing dual-core processors and multiple gigabytes of RAM.

Google and the OS

Google is interesting and a different kind of Microsoft. But, the more time reveals, the more like Microsoft I think Google is becoming. I’m not making a value judgment about Google – I think Google is different in many, many ways than Microsoft. In fact, my belief is that technology companies gravitate toward a position of dominance and an orientation toward specific strategies that create unfair advantage, naturally, with success of their platform. Naturally, because as power is achieved through success, more power can be achieved by leverage. This is natural and mostly fair. This is our free market system at it’s best (or some would say, it’s worse).

Google wants to own the full stack. It’s logical, especially in their world view. If they can own the operating system, and the applications, and the services on top of the operating system and applications – they can extract the maximum value from the stack. It’s not evil, per se. It’s business. And they have plenty of cash, and plenty of time. For now, most people still view Google as the underdog and Microsoft as the evil monopoly.

But it’s not much different than Microsoft in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Faced with how to gain marketshare and continue to secure their dominance, Microsoft was able to make Free a lethal weapon. It’s taken over a decade for a company like Google to come along and challenge Microsoft – and it’s about time.

However, it is dangerous to believe that Google’s the white knight that will rescue the world from Microsoft dominance. They will certainly continue to put it into a more aggressive and innovative position and help level the playing field. I welcome that.

Mostly likely the immediate victims of the Google OS will not be Microsoft. The Google OS will first almost certainly challenge Linux – more specifically Ubuntu. This is the same as what Android will do to Symbian. While certainly Android competes with iPhone, more likely Android will challenge the rest of the Mobile OS than the Apple iPhone.

Google will also potentially stifle smaller competitors and innovative startups, first. Not because they necessarily intend to, but because they can. And they will. While Google is by far one of the largest (if not the largest) consumers and producers of open source, they have a hard time cooperating with open source communities and they don’t buy open source. This is completely OK – completely fair. It’s open source.

But I give Google credit, nonetheless. They try hard with I believe good intentions. But, it does hurt. Not personally, but as a whole. Their shear size, influence and impact have a way of simply locking out competition by simply talking about their intentions.

And, like Microsoft, Google will use Free as a way to do it. And, Free will give them a (free) pass – maybe with different means that Microsoft, but ultimately justifying the same end.

And what becomes of Google Chrome and the Google Chrome OS as it relates to Web standards?

What I like and admire about Google is that they’ve continued to support two important initiatives:

- Open Source

- Open Standards

However, this is a different means to an end than Microsoft used over a decade ago. Microsoft used proprietary and free to create unfair advantage. I believe strongly Google will use free and open to create an unfair advantage. And they will do it with the world cheering them on.

Google does these two initiatives because it makes their job easier. And it’s good for business, especially as it relates to their world view and their long-term strategy.

Let me reiterate – I don’t hate Google and I’m not trying to call Google evil. I believe it’s in their corporate interest to maximize shareholder value by creating the best and most dominant position in the marketplace. Google Chrome OS is a means to an end. And it’s a smart one.

But, the end to Google is still similar to Microsoft – albeit with different means and possibly different end goals. But, it most likely will have similar effects.

And this is the dilemma: What will Google do (WWGD)?

I started off by saying it’s a great time to be a web developer. This is because web technologies are the mainstay of all of these emerging and competing trends. And, in the end, I hope web technologies will continue to win, regardless of which desktop, phone, netbook or ebook reader we’re using in the next decade. That’s why we created Titanium. It’s going to be interesting.

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More Stories By Jeff Haynie

Jeff Haynie is co-founder and CEO of Appcelerator. He started Appcelerator to provide a true open-source solution to enterprise RIA and SOA-based services development, after growing frustrated by the limited options and complexity in other solutions through his own development work. Prior to starting Appcelerator, Haynie served as co-founder and CTO of Vocalocity and CTO of eHatchery, an extension of Bill Gross? ideaLab. Haynie is an expert software developer and entrepreneur. Haynie has been active in standards development, as well as a contributor to open-source projects, including early work on JBoss. For more on Jeff Haynie, visit his blog at http://blog.jeffhaynie.us.