The Future of the Web As Seen From Google I/O Day Two

01:14 Tuesday May 21, 2013


It's the second day at Google I/O 2013 in San Francisco. While the other members of the HuffPost tech team on site have been pursuing sessions on Android and Google Glass, I've been focused on something much more mundane: the World Wide Web.

The web is 20 years old and we take it for granted as if a free and open Internet is a natural phenomenon. Web computing been pushed out of the limelight by its younger siblings mobile and wearable computing. But I'm still enchanted with the old reliable web technologies: HTTP, HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The web is where computing became ubiquitous and as we move to mobile and wearable devices to meet our computing needs, we bring the web along with us. iOS, Android, and Google Glass all use technologies and protocols worked out by websites and web apps to communicate and process data.

Unfortunately the web right now is a bit of mess. Not only has it aged and lost a bit of luster, but web technology bits and bytes are disorganized and difficult to work with. The major web browsers makers (Google, Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft) are all working on this problem as it's holding developers back from creating "awesome" new web applications. Unfortunately for us developers, each of the one of these big players wants to solve the problem in their own way. Apple didn't like Adobe Flash and so Flash is going the way of the dinosaur. Google didn't like the slow code in WebKit and started its own version of the web browser engine it formerly shared with Apple. Microsoft, after years of being the bad boy of Internet standards, is suddenly more agreeable than ever. Mozilla is doing some really interesting things with a new web browser engine it is building with Samsung but doesn't have the clout that it used to have to create new web standards.

All of this "let's fix the web" activity is just creating more headaches with compatibility issues and web apps that are either lowest common denominator or only work in specific browsers. We don't talk about it anymore but there are still websites alive today that only work with early versions of Internet Explorer. I don't want to go back to the dark days of the "browser wars" but we seem to be headed there.

It's going to take a robust, visionary, and tenacious technology leader to get us back on track to a single set of strong web standards that web developers can use to write great web apps quickly and easily. Based on what I've seen in San Francisco this week, Google looks like they have what it takes to be that technology leader.

Google is robust. And by robust, I mean they have thousands of smart engineers and deep pockets to fund the research and development required to tackle the problems that 20 years of meandering web technologies have created. Of course a free and open Internet is in Google's interest. The majority of Google's revenue comes from mining the web's long tail with Internet ads. An Internet without pay walls and walled gardens is important to both web developers and Google in a way that Apple and Microsoft don't need to worry about. Mozilla is also a champion of openness but they simply don't have the army of engineers that Google has to maintain leadership in a long, drawn out war for the hearts and minds of web developers.

Google is something of a fast follower when it comes to music services and social networks but a true visionary when it comes to the web. Fueled by the need to ensure that the web as we know it doesn't go away as we transition from desktop and laptop devices to mobile and wearable devices, Google is charting a course to deal with all the speed bumps that prevent web developers from writing applications as sophisticated as Photoshop, Excel, and Bioshock Infinite. Most of the demos at Google I/O this week have been about how a web app can be just as fast, reliable, and powerful as a traditional desktop application. Android and Glass grab the headlines but Chrome, DART, and Web Components will be technologies that bring us a better web on a daily basis. (But only If these technologies gain traction with web developers and the other web browsers support them in the long run).

Let's talk a about a couple of these web technologies that I saw at Google I/O today: Dart and Web Components.

Dart is a new web programming language that addresses most of the problems that our current web programming language, JavaScript, suffers from. If you have ever been a victim of evil hackers, nasty popup ads, or a buggy website there is a good chance it that poorly written JavaScript code was at the root of the problem. All the dynamic features that you love on HuffPost and almost every other web site online today are written in JavaScript. Even the best developers struggle with the "bad parts" of JavaScript. Google's Dart programming language was inspired by the "good parts" of JavaScript. While I'm not totally awed by Dart, I am impressed with how Google's engineers have taken all the best practices of modern web development and built them into Dart so that developers get a very fast, safe, and logical environment in which to run code.

Web Components are an old idea that Google is building into Chrome so that the task of constructing web apps is simplified with reusable building blocks of HTML instead of requiring thousands of lines of custom JavaScript code. As a programmer I hate writing code. Every line of code is another potential bug, another thing to worry about, another bill that will eventually have to be paid. Google's Web Components let me define pieces of HTML and CSS that I can reuse without having to write lots of code. If the other browsers adopt Web Components then web apps will have better tested parts and far fewer bugs.

Google's version of the future of the web is compelling and practical. But Apple, Microsoft, and Mozilla need to jump on the Google bandwagon to ensure Chrome doesn't become an island of cool but mostly ignored technologies. This is where tenacity comes in. Apple has some good ideas. Mozilla has some great ideas. Microsoft is looking for ideas so they can get back in the game. If Google wants it's version of the future of the web to come true it's going to have to fight, negotiate, trade, beg, and bully. Most of all Google is going to have to stick to its plan in spite of any setbacks or lack of visible progress. That's tough to do in a world that measures success in quarterly earning reports but Google is one of the few technology companies with the potential to actually do it.

John Pavley


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