The web browser, it is safe to say, has gone from humble origins to being the single most widely used piece of desktop software (based on my own usage, but I don’t think I’m untypical). This development continues today. The battles being fought and the tactical decisions being made here reach a very large audience and have a big impact.
A couple of years ago I had a personal project ongoing for some time. I had decided that web browsers weren’t designed for the kind of tasks they were being made to do (displaying applications), and I wanted to make a new kind of application platform for delivering applications over the web. Today I’m convinced that this would never have succeeded. Even if I had gotten the technology right (which I don’t think I was ever close to), I would have had no way of achieving mass adoption. Incremental developments of the web browser have, however, placed a new kind of application platform in the hands of the masses. Today the cutting edge seems to be browsers like Google’s Chrome, aggressively optimised for application delivery. But some new vegetables have been added to the browser soup.
Google’s GWT web toolkit has been available for some time. This framework makes it easier to develop AJAX applications. Some hardcore AJAX developers may consider it immature, but these frameworks are going to be increasingly popular since they bridge the differences between browsers very smoothly, I think. What’s interesting is that the same company is developing GWT and Chrome though. The two sides of the browser-application equation have a common creator. This helps both: GWT can become more popular if Chrome is a popular browser, and Chrome can become more popular if GWT is a popular framework. Google can make and has made GWT apps run very fast with the Chrome browser (I tested this personally with some things I’ve been hacking on). The sky is the limit here; they can easily add special native features in the browser that GWT alone can hook into.
Microsoft have something a little bit similar with their Silverlight, which while not playing quite the same role, has a co-beneficial relationship with Internet Explorer.
Everyone’s favorite browser, Firefox, recently passed 1 billion downloads. Firefox doesn’t really have a web development kit of their own as I understand it. It just tries to implement the standards well. Which is fair and good, but it demotes FF from the league of agenda setters to people who play catch up, in some sense. Though, it must be said, the rich variety of plugins available for FF might go a long way to remedy this.