Browsers: Top 5 events from 2012

Web developers and browser makers were on course toward building the universal software platform -- until smartphones got in the way.

Five browser logos

For a while there, the browser was winning the war.

New startups launched online services rather than packaged software. Browser makers raced to transform the Web from a place to publish documents into a general-purpose programming platform. People spent more and more time using the Web instead of software that ran natively on devices.

Then the era of modern smartphones and tablets began. And in 2012, it became clear that Web app advocates will have to work a lot harder to build a universal software foundation. Here's a look at what happened this year in the world of the Web, starting with an an extremely public vote of no confidence.

The W3C's new HTML5 logo stands for more than just the HTML5 standard.
The W3C's new HTML5 logo stands for more than just the HTML5 standard. W3C

Facebook slaps down HTML5
The basic technology for describing Web pages is Hypertext Markup Language, and the new HTML5 version now symbolizes modern Web development, even though it also relies on other standards such as JavaScript for running actual programs and CSS for formatting and effects.

The HTML5 idea is that Web apps can span many devices -- Windows machines, Macs, smartphones, tablets, and more -- because everything has a browser these days. One of the biggest advocates of the approach was Facebook, which used Web coding to reach a tremendous range of devices .

But Facebook this year abruptly changed course, choosing instead to release native iOS and Android apps. The company had loved the Web approach, which let its programmers constantly release new versions that would load the same way a browser loads a fresh version of a Web site. But the performance wasn't acceptable.

"I think the biggest mistake that we made as a company is betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native," Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said. "Probably we will look back saying that is one of the biggest mistakes if not the biggest strategic mistake that we made."

Zuckerberg's long-term enthusiasm for Web apps was a pretty unappealing consolation prize.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg called his company's reliance on Web apps for mobile access to the site a major strategic error.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg called his company's reliance on Web apps for mobile access to the site a major strategic error. James Martin/CNET

Microsoft stiffs browser rivals
With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to make a fresh start with the operating system interfaces that software can use. Windows 8 marries the older Win32 interfaces with the new WinRT. But Windows RT, the cousin that runs on mobile devices such as Microsoft's Surface that use ARM processors, lets third-party software use only the WinRT interfaces.

IE9 logo

That happens to hobble browsers -- well, third-party browsers like Chrome and Firefox. Microsoft's own IE10 gets access to the low-level Win32 interfaces, letting it run JavaScript faster. Mozilla objected strenuously , and Google piled on , too. Microsoft carved an exception for browsers running on Windows 8, no doubt encouraged by its earlier antitrust woes involving Internet Explorer, but the company doesn't look likely to budge on Windows RT.

Even though European officials are checking into the situation , legal experts think any opponents would have a hard antitrust case .

The result, though could be that browser choice becomes a thing of the past . Safari dominates on iOS, Android's browser on Android, and IE on Windows Phone. Even if people might want a choice, company limits often preclude it.

Do Not Track derailed
Microsoft also threw a wrench in the works of a proposed new standard called Do Not Track (DNT) that's designed to let people tell Web sites not to keep tabs on their online behavior. The effort grew out of a Federal Trade Commission request for the industry to come up with a voluntary solution to the issue, since privacy advocates are not happy with the idea of behavioral targeting of advertisements.

Mozilla proposed a solution that got traction in Chrome, Opera, and Safari, in which browsers would tell Web sites not to track if people had expressly set the browser to send the message. But Microsoft, saying it wanted more privacy, turns DNT on if people accept the Windows 8 default installation settings. That might sound great for privacy, but online advertisers say they'll ignore the setting if it hasn't been expressly set by users.

DNT author Roy Fielding, an Adobe scientist and programmer in the Apache Web server software project, one-upped Microsoft by patching Apache so it overrides IE's DNT setting . But Microsoft isn't budging .

What could break the DNT gridlock? Perhaps the appointment of Peter Swire as co-chair of the group trying to standardize it.

Microsoft's IE has stopped its market-share losses, with Chrome and Firefox jockeying for second place.
Microsoft's IE has stopped its market-share losses, with Chrome and Firefox jockeying for second place. Data from Net Applications; chart by Stephen Shankland/CNET

IE gets real
There's a big community of people who don't like Microsoft's browser actions -- squashing Netscape in the 1990s then letting IE6 lie fallow for years.

But that's old thinking. Microsoft dragged itself back aboard the Web standards bandwagon with IE9. But this year's release of IE10 -- packaged with Windows 8 and set to arrive in finished form later for Windows 7 -- that's the stronger statement.

IE10 supports a long list of new Web standards: IndexedDB and AppCache for writing Web apps that work even when a computer doesn't have a Net connection; support for a range of pointers including multitouch interfaces; asychronous script execution for getting Web pages to load faster and run more smoothly; the file interface for better uploads and ways for apps to access data; sandbox security restrictions; and a lot of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) effects.

And it's pretty fast to load Web pages. All this means IE10 can compete -- and not just because it's built into Windows. There are still some missing features -- the WebGL interface for 3D graphics, for instance, which Microsoft thinks is a security risk -- but even without it and some other omissions, Web programmers still can look forward to IE's transition to a modern browser.

Naturally, Microsoft is tooting its IE horn as a result. And it has a strong incentive to keep pushing ahead: Windows 8 apps can be written using the JavaScript, CSS, and HTML Web technologies. Microsoft might have a vanishingly small share of Web usage in the mobile market, but it has mostly stopped IE's share losses in PC browser usage .

The $249 Samsung Chromebook
The $249 Samsung Chromebook Sarah Tew/CNET

Price cut makes Chromebooks worthwhile
Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system, was a wacky idea when it debuted in 2009 and still not very compelling when it arrived in products called Chromebooks in 2011. But in 2012, Google and its Chrome OS allies came up with a much more compelling recipe by lowering the price.

First came the $249 Samsung Chromebook , which uses an ARM processor rather than a more conventional Intel chip. Next was the even cheaper Acer C7 Chromebook , which uses an Intel chip but drops the SSD in favor of a conventional hard drive.

Neither can come anywhere close to replacing a video-game rig or Photoshop workstation. But for the price, they can be a capable second or third machine to have around the house for e-mail, surfing, Facebook, and homework assignments. They may not have the entertainment appeal of a tablet packed with games, but they're cheaper than a new iPad, and a lot of people prefer a keyboard when it's time to type.

Samsung also released some higher-end Chromebooks and the first Chromebox, a small machine that requires an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. They're more expensive, but in combination with the significantly revamped Chrome OS and integrated with Google Drive, they're useful for a certain population.

Web apps may be struggling on smartphones and tablets, but for a laptop, they're a more realistic option. Browser makers and Web developers have work to do on mobile, but they're hardly an endangered species.

 

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