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The Web in 2012: Five predictions, starting with IE10

Chrome and IE will ascend next year, but what else will happen in Web technology? Here are five forecasts.

Five browser logos

Given how fast the Web is changing, it can be hard to see what's going to happen next week, much less next year.

After simmering for a few years last decade, the Web has been a frenzy of activity in the last few years. Developers are advancing what can be done, people are spending more time on the Web, and browser makers are locked in intense competition.

Broadly speaking, it's easy to see that Web technology will get more important and more sophisticated. But if for some detail, here are my five predictions for what'll happen next year.

IE10 knocks our socks off
Internet Explorer 9 was the warning shot across the bow for Web developers and rival browser makers, but Microsoft was playing catch-up after years of neglect. Watching the pace of development for IE10 reveals that the company is on fire. It's moved from catch-up to leading-edge. Where IE once was years behind Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Chrome with support for new standards, it's now neck-and-neck, and Microsoft is actively contributing to standards development.

Microsoft has more than pride resting on IE10. It's a foundation for the new Metro-style apps on Windows 8, which means all that work to bring fancy animation effects and hardware acceleration to the Web will carry over to Windows, too. Microsoft has bet the farm on Web technologies, so you can bet IE10 will be strong.

IE10 won't be for everyone. You'll need Windows 7 or Windows 8. IE9 left the legions of Windows XP users behind, and IE10 will add Windows Vista to the discard pile. That'll limit its influence with the mainstream public. But despite all Microsoft's troubles as it scrambles to follow Apple into the tablet and smartphone market, IE10 will be a force. The PC market may have grown stale, in the words of Intel Chief Executive Paul Otellini, but it's still big, and building IE10 into Windows 8 gives it a big presence. Also, if you're on a legacy version of Internet Explorer like IE6 or IE7, watch out--in January, Microsoft will start forcing you to move to a more modern version.

There's one big caveat here: WebGL. Microsoft has very publicly bad-mouthed it as a security risk. WebGL allies believe Microsoft will come around once it realizes WebGL can be made as secure as Microsoft's own new Silverlight 3D interface. But if the programmers in Redmond stay recalcitrant, maybe you'll have to tab over to another browser when it's time for your Web-based gaming.

Web games take off
Games on the Web are nothing new, but in 2012, they're going to look a lot different. Instead of primitive graphics or a reliance on Adobe Systems' Flash Player, Web games will look more like what we're used to seeing on consoles.

The Web grew up as a medium for documents, and it's only gradually become more interactive as browsers' JavaScript performance exploded, JavaScript programming tools improved, and feature such as Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and Canvas improved 2D graphics. Now elaborate Web apps such as Facebook or Google Docs are the norm, and JavaScript programmers are in high demand.

But things are changing with the influx of a new breed of Web developers: those used to programming in the lower-level C or C++ languages. These are the coders who build the console games with advanced 3D graphics and heavy-duty physics engines, and their games are the ones where speedboats splash through transparent, reflecting, rippling water.

There are two hardware-accelerated technologies duking it out to enable this future. First is WebGL, a 3D graphics interface which began at Mozilla, was standardized by the Khronos Group, and is now built into Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. Second is Native Client, a Chrome-only technology that can run adapted versions of the original C and C++ games. WebGL fits into the Web world better and has broader support, but it's tied to JavaScript. Native Client, aka NaCl, has yet to win over any browser makers besides Google itself.

Other technologies will lend a big helping hand, too: the newly finished WebSocket for fast communications and Web Workers for better multitasking.

These technologies will eventually trickle down to the mobile realm, though I expect only baby steps in 2012. Still, that should help fan the flames of the competition between Web apps and native apps on mobile.

I don't expect one to win out over the other (or to squeeze Flash Player off our personal computers, for that matter--the new Flash Player 11 has new hardware-accelerated 3D technology, too). But I do expect WebGL and NaCl will be used to make today's browser look nearly as static as paper.

Chrome surpasses Firefox
When Google's browser first emerged as a stripped-down beta project more than three years ago, people laughed. Not anymore.

In 2012, expect Chrome to pass Mozilla's Firefox for the No. 2 spot in Net Applications' browser ranking. It already is No. 2 by StatCounter's scores, but that measures page views, not people, and I think the latter is a better reflection of the competitive dynamic.

Mozilla has been working hard to shake off the cobwebs and make Firefox leaner, faster, and less of a memory hog. But Google's browser continues its steady rise, and Google under new Chief Executive Larry Page has made Chrome one of the company's new divisions.

Chrome is an important vehicle to deliver Google technology to the world, most notably Web-acceleration ideas such as SPDY, TLS False Start, WebP, and the Dart alternative to JavaScript. Chrome's wide use gives Google a place at the standards-setting table that's crucial as it tries to make the Web into a rich programming foundation.

The risk that comes with Chrome's rise is that Google will fragment the Web. It's had some success getting its browser ideas to catch on. For example, Mozilla is interested in SPDY for faster page loading, and Amazon's Silk browser uses it already. But Google is encouraging developers to create extensions and Web apps that can be distributed through the Chrome Web Store, for Chrome and Chrome OS only. A Chrome-only version of the Web hearkens back to the bad old days of IE6's dominance, when writing to Web standards was a secondary concern.

Google re-ups with Mozilla
One thing I don't expect in 2012 is for Google to cease being Mozilla's biggest benefactor by walking away from a years-old search partnership that ended in November.

With the partnership, people using Firefox's search box send traffic to Google's search engine. When they click on the search ads they see there, advertisers pay Google, and Google gives some of that revenue back to Mozilla.

It's true that Google could seriously hurt Firefox by scrapping the partnership, though Mozilla could certainly hook up its revenue hose to Microsoft's Bing if it did. But I don't think Google will drop Mozilla.

First, Mozilla and Google, despite differences, both are passionately interested in building a better Web. Chrome's purpose is not to vanquish rival browsers, it's to improve the Web, and in that, Mozilla is more an ally than enemy.

Second, paying Mozilla a few tens of millions of dollars a year is peanuts to Google--and Google still keeps its share of the search-ad revenue that Mozilla was responsible for Google generating in the first place.

Last, and perhaps not least, hanging Mozilla out to dry would show Google to be a big bully. That's not an image you want when you're constantly tangling with antitrust authorities. Google and Mozilla might significantly modify their arrangement, but they won't part ways.

Chrome on Android arrives
Chrome is based on the open-source WebKit browser engine project. Android's unbranded browser is, too. I bet that in 2012, the latter will pick up the brand name of the former.

Android was based on WebKit but had been developed in isolation. Now Google is merging programming work again, making the Android browser less of an alien offshoot. That should make it easier for Google to achieve the compatibility requirements that it evidently feels are part of the Chrome brand's promise.

That would match what Apple does, offering Safari for both Mac OS and iOS. Chrome is one of Google's most important brands, and it's not getting its money's worth out of it yet.

One thing I'd expect before seeing Chrome on an Android phone or tablet: sync. Right now, Chrome is ever better at keeping the same bookmarks, passwords, and browsing history across multiple installations. Moving to Android, though, a Chrome user loses all that. The Android browser's isolation is a poor fit for Google's ambition to keep us all happy in its corner of the Web, with seamless connections between one product and another.

Mobile browsing is getting steadily more important; expect its growth in usage to continue to outpace that of personal computers. Web developers will have to keep up, and now it's important to recognize that tablets are in many ways more like PCs than smartphones.

Because of the iPad's tablet dominance and the fact that iPhone owners seem to use online services more often, though, expect iOS to remain the dominant mobile browser.