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Google I/O keeps browser focus despite fancy phones, eyewear

Android and Glass get a lot of attention at Google I/O, but Chrome and Web programming sessions are core to Google's conference for developers.

Google I/O 2013 logo

With newer technologies such as Android and more recently Glass, the scope of Google I/O has expanded dramatically since the first show in 2008. But Google, born on the Web, is keeping the browser at the heart of the show.

Five years ago, Google wanted to advance what Web-based software could do. The company could take steps such as improving interfaces to its own online services so developers could build better sites, and it promoted the Gears browser plug-in designed to beef up browser abilities with features like offline app support and the ability.

Two things make that different now: Chrome and Chrome OS. With these products -- and the seat at the Web standards table that Google earns as a result -- Google has much more powerful leverage to makes hopes into reality. So expect plenty of browser news at Google's developer-oriented Google I/O show, which starts Wednesday.

(Other highlights at the show will include YouTube, Google Maps, and Google's new technology darling, Glass. For a look at what Android fans should expect at Google I/O, check CNET's preview from my colleague Maggie Reardon, and if you're curious about other online services, look at Seth Rosenblatt's preview about games, social networking, and other Google services at Google I/O.)

Chrome and Chrome OS are getting steadily heavier as they pick up more and more abilities of traditional operating systems, but Google shows no signs of wanting to go back to the super-spartan browser it first showed publicly in September 2008.

At the Google I/O show this week, expect news of more advancements for browser-based software -- better abilities to work offline when the network flakes out, better performance, better features so Web app can match software that runs natively on iOS or Windows, better tools for developers to write their Web apps. Perhaps we'll even see a Chrome OS tablet that Google said is now feasible, even though it would compete awkwardly with Android tablets.

Better browsers mean better Web apps become possible, and Google has plenty of them. The highest profile ones -- Gmail, Docs, Sheets, and Slides -- are sold as a revenue-generating subscription service called Google Apps. They're tied together with Google Drive, which synchronizes online documents and files stored on people's local machines.

Google's Chromebook Pixel
Google's Chromebook Pixel, the flagship of the Chrome OS hardware fleet. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Why bother with Chrome?
Hundreds of millions of people use Chrome, which now extends to Android and iOS, and Chrome OS appears to be gaining traction in some corners of the industry despite a rough start. That's a remarkable achievement given how many people questioned the merit of both projects.

But why does Google bother? Two reasons stand out.

First, the company makes piles of money through searches that generate search-ad revenue. And with Chrome and Chrome OS, unlike with queries originating from the search boxes on Firefox or other browsers, Google doesn't have to share that ad revenue. That's why Sundar Pichai, head of Chrome, Apps, and now Android, said last year at Google I/O that Chrome is "exceptionally profitable."

Second, by combining a browser with its own sites and services, Google has an unmatched ability to develop new Web technology. It controls both ends of the pipe -- and with Google Fiber, it has the potential to control some of the pipe, too. Some projects focus on new features, others on improving the speed.

The point isn't generally to create proprietary technology -- Google uses an open-source approach and tries to bring its ideas into the Web standards world. The point is to make the Web into a more powerful programming foundation, to make Google's sites run faster. And Google wants others' Web sites and Web apps to improve, too, because that means people spend more time on the Web, and that means they spend more time with Google services such as search.

Some examples of recent Google work to improve the Web:

Google hardly has a monopoly on Web innovation; browser developers at Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera have all come up with technology that's making its way through standardization and onto the Web. But Google often thinks bigger and is willing to make bold moves -- such as acquiring On2 Technologies for $123 million to get access to VP8 and then hammering out a deal with MPEG LA to try to dispel patent-infringement worries.

Win some, lose some
However, Google has had a harder time winning fans for other ideas. One example is Dart, a programming language designed to improve on today's universally used JavaScript. Its opponents would rather see energy devoted to improving JavaScript and not risk the complications and security risks of a new scripting language on the Web. Google plans to describe what's new with Dart at the show.

Another hard sell has been Native Client, which lets programmers move native C or C++ software so it runs inside the browser without the security risks one otherwise would need to fear with native code downloaded over the Net. Google is likely to introduce a new variant called Portable Native Client (PNaCl) that sidesteps some difficulties that the native software must be built for specific processors. Google will detail PNaCl at Google I/O.

The collaborative nature of the Web means one browser maker's technology doesn't truly succeed unless its fiercest rivals adopt it too. That makes it safe for developers to embrace it.

But Google's browser shortcomings are less notable than its successes. The company has helped inject new competitive ferocity into the browser market and the world of Web programming, and there's a good reason that the fattest part of the Google I/O agenda is the Chrome track.