Will new browsers really upgrade the Web?

The latest browsers sport many hot new features. But the avant-garde must reckon with inconsistent standards, lagging IE, and slow adoption.

Mozilla is exhorting users to "upgrade the Web" with Firefox 3.5 and variations on that better-browsing theme can be found with Google's Chrome, Apple's Safari, and Opera.

The hope is that the Web will evolve from a series of relatively static pages to a lively home for Web applications--everything from today's e-mail to tomorrow's spreadsheets. But it could take awhile for reality to catch up with the vision.

It's indeed a bright, shiny future for browsers, and the avant-garde is advancing rapidly. Web developers eager to invigorate their Web sites or build fancy Web applications have to reckon not only with the massive, slower-moving army of ordinary Web browsers, but also with inconsistent support for the latest technology.

Browsers of the future
Many of new browser features stem from HTML 5, the still-not-finalized next iteration of the HyperText Markup Language standard that defines how Web pages are described. HTML 5 has spurred the arrival of built-in video and audio, local storage that Web sites or applications can use, "Web workers" that can perform background processing tasks for a Web application, drag-and-drop for better user interfaces, and other technologies.

That's not all. Also on the frontier:

• Faster JavaScript--the language that powers Web applications such as Google Docs--is a public priority for all the top browsers except Microsoft, and performance has surged in the last year.

• Google wants browsers to use computers' processing power with Native Client and O3D.

• Through Opera Unite, Opera wants browsers to host their own applications by turning the browser into a server others can visit.

• And a variety of other standards--CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics)--stand to improve browsers' graphical sophistication.

• Geolocation technology can, with the your permission, let a Web site know where you are to tailor location-specific content accordingly.

Bumps on the HTML 5 video road
The case of video support is illustrative. HTML 5 includes the "video" tag, which holds the potential to make video as routine and easy to handle as images have been for more than a decade on the Web. Instead of having to rely on a browser plug-in such as Adobe Systems' Flash Player, Microsoft's Silverlight, or Apple's Quicktime, video becomes a native part of the Web.

In theory at least. In practice, HTML 5 video is rough around the edges.

One of the biggest issues is inconsistent standards support. For images, most browsers get by fine with JPEG, GIF, and PNG formats. But in video, Mozilla has built in support for Ogg Theora, while Safari and Chrome are inclined toward the H.264 standard. The former may be distributed without licensing and royalty constraints, but the latter is more widely used to supply video content today.

So, for example, video site DailyMotion is transcoding its 300,000 videos to Ogg, but at least for now, only Firefox will play them in that format. Other browsers revert to Flash, so the site still functions without Ogg support, but that's status quo for the Web. Is it the job of the operating system, a plug-in, or the browser to supply video-decoding software?

HTML video does offer a significant departure from Flash's embedded rectangular boxes, and it's arriving on advanced mobile devices such as Apple's iPhone and Google Android phones that presently lack Flash support.

"You can start to get the Web page interacting with the video," Firefox Director Mike Beltzner said in an interview Tuesday. For example, one video can be embedded within another, and JavaScript can control the video. In one demonstration, a face-recognition software learned who was in a running video, then identified those individuals later.

A different problem afflicts local storage, which lets browser-based applications store data on a person's PC or phone, for example letting Gmail work even without a network connection. The technology derived from Google's Gears project, which embedded the SQLite database software, but others have questioned whether SQL's syntax is the best interface for Web developers. Even relying on SQLite as a standard doesn't guarantee compatibility because browsers can use different versions, Beltzner observed.

Refresh rate
It doesn't just take time for standards to be hashed out. It takes time for users to update to new browsers and for Web developers to decide there's critical mass to support them.

The most notable example is Internet Explorer 6, which initially shipped in 2001 and still is in widespread use. IE overall has 66 percent market share, according to Net Applications' May 2009 statistics; IE's share breaks down to 41 percent for IE 7, 17 percent for IE 6, and 7 percent for IE 8.

Web programmers long have bemoaned IE 6. There's a Stop IE 6 campaign. More recently, John Martz attracted attention with his cartoon message created for use when IE 6 users visit the Momentile Web site; it depicts various browsers in the treehouse spurning IE 6.

One of the benefits of Adobe's Flash is that it sidesteps some of these issues. Of course, it's a proprietary plug-in, not an open standard, which raises some developer hackles. But Flash works the same on different browsers and different operating systems, and Adobe has a reliable mechanism to upgrade users relatively swiftly to the latest version.

"Flash's success paints a target on its back," Adobe blogger John Dowdell said in a blog post about Mozilla's publicity pitch. "'Upgrading the Web' is what happens with each new Flash generation."

But browsers are getting more fluid with auto-update technology. Though Microsoft, in particular, is held back by business-user requirements, all major browsers come with technology to download and install the latest versions relatively easily. Chrome updates itself automatically without giving users any say in the matter, making its upgrade cycle perhaps the fastest of all.

Until the large number of IE 6 and IE 7 users and conservative businesses can be persuaded to get on the fast-upgrade train, though, programmers will have to reckon with older browsers, too.

But the new-browser generation has one thing going for it: standards. HTML, CSS, SVG, JavaScript, and other technologies remain fluid, but they're in the driver's seat in a way they weren't in the days of Microsoft's unquestioned dominance.

More browser variety, along with IE 8's standards-mode default, means Web developers can rely more on standards than on whatever Microsoft chose to do in 2001. It's a long way to a faster, richer, more powerful Web, but the path is clear.

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