The New New Browser Wars

In thinking about the desktop/web hybrid platforms that have launched or are about to be launched, I’ve decided that even if last year they were overhyped, this year we’re going to see real adoption and applications. But that presents an interesting problem for developers and eventually, for users. The vast array of options and functionalities not only makes the web experience different for different users, but it makes developing sites more complicated, much like the rise of different browsers and the proliferation of Flash has in the past.

I’ve written about MySpace using Google Gears for email, but apparently WordPress is going to take advantage of Gears in its next version, too. Twhirl uses Adobe Air to bring Twitter to the desktop and a fun program called Snackr pulls random bits from your RSS feeds to stream across the desktop. We’re still waiting for Prism from Mozilla, and yesterday Yahoo launched BrowserPlus. Again, the sheer number of these presents its own set of problems.

I have copies of Air, Gears and BrowserPlus on my machine, and each have their pros and their cons. Air essentially brings the browser offline, while BrowserPlus runs outside of the browser to make your desktop an extension of the web. Gears runs inside the browser, making Firefox even more unstable, but does make my web browsing faster. (Getting it to work with Gmail is my top request, mind you.)

It’s my job to play around with these sites, but I can’t imagine the average user wanting to download three or four different programs in order to optimize their browsing experience. I still get irritated about upgrading Flash. As for developers wanting to take advantage of extending web functionality, deciding which platform to use will be an exercise in decision-making. Do they go with a platform that has more downloads, or better features? Do they integrate with several platforms if the feature sets are similar, or hope that users download multiple programs? These are similar questions they had to ask when designing for Explorer, Firefox or Netscape.

Skylar Woodward, a software engineer at Yahoo who helped build the BrowserPlus program, thinks eventually some of the code behind these efforts will be opened up to the community, making it easier for developers to implement multiple platforms on their sites. In the meantime, he champions the idea of “graceful degradation.” In that scenario, a user can see the site without downloading a platform, he just might miss out on a few nifty features in the process.

So for those of you too lazy to click through on those installs, welcome to the gracefully degraded Internet.