Do new Web tools spell doom for the browser?

Do new Web tools spell doom for the browser?

The Web is evolving into a full-fledged app-delivery platform, calling into question the browser's ability to fulfill the needs of today's rich Internet apps

Similarly, the choice between Adobe AIR and Google Gears is a false dichotomy. "I imagine that a browser with Flash and the proper hooks into the Google platform would be pretty powerful," says David Bliss, technical director at Odopod, a US-based design firm.

As these technologies mature, a new kind of browser is likely to emerge, one that combines the current Web experience with new capabilities based on emerging tools. The key to that evolution will be to integrate today's cutting-edge features with tomorrow's Web standards -- a process that Adobe and Google are both actively pursuing.

"We've got Gears out there -- we've got it running in Google Docs, Google Reader," Google's Almaer explains. "So now we can go back to the standards groups and we can share our experience, and we can work with them to get these standards that have actually been battle-tested."

Tellingly, Ian Hickson, lead editor of the draft HTML 5 specification, is a Google employee. And the fruits of Google's labors are already evident.

"You can take a look at the HTML 5 proposal that's being actively edited at the moment, and you'll see that there's a database API like Gears has a database API," Almaer says.

Adobe is similarly involved in the standardization process -- in particular, extending ECMAScript, the standard on which JavaScript is based, to make it more effective for large-scale application programming. Adobe has already implemented many proposed extensions in Flash's ActionScript language. "ActionScript 3 is essentially an implementation of where we think ECMAScript is going," Adobe's Rowe says.

Tomorrow's Web

Despite differences in approach between AIR and Gears, Adobe and Google actually share a common vision. Both companies aim to extend the current Web browsing experience with new features that allow developers to deliver RIAs more easily. And, because Web developers, too, have diverse goals and methods, the traditional browser is unlikely to disappear as an application-delivery platform, even as desktop-based Web apps proliferate.

"The goal is to overcome a few persistent shortcomings of RIAs," says Odopod's Bliss. "The browser still has an important role in this model. It is likely to be the first touch point for most users and customers. AIR applications can extend the experience for a set of users."

Far from being a "browser killer," AIR is merely an extension of an existing, successful Adobe strategy. While AIR apps run on the desktop, most Flash content is displayed in the browser, using the Flash plug-in.

"Adobe has no vested interest in saying all apps should be Web apps or that all apps should be desktop apps. In no way are we anti-browser," says Adobe's Rowe. "As far as the browser becoming more powerful, where that makes sense, that's great."

Significantly, both Adobe and Google also rely heavily on open source code. Google Gears is 100 per cent open source, while AIR incorporates the open source WebKit rendering engine and the SQLite data storage library. An important effect of this is that code contributed by one company can actually benefit the other. This informal collaboration, combined with the formal Web standards process, ensures that the future development of the Web remains a dialogue, not a debate.

"We realize that we've got some smart developers, but there's lots and lots of people out there that have different things that they would like to make better on the Web. We'd love to have them join our community," says Google's Almaer. "It's all about having one place, one community to drive the Web forward."

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