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Tag: HTML5

Why Comparing Google Drive to Dropbox is Missing the Point

Last week, Google unveiled its long-rumored Google Drive product with great fanfare. While the gaggle of tech journalists/bloggers issued predictable comparisons of Google’s new service with online storage/syncing services like Dropbox, I couldn’t help but think that most of the coverage missed the point on why Google Drive was interesting. Yes, its another consumer-facing cloud storage service – but the really interesting aspect of it is not whether or not it’ll “kill Dropbox/Box.net/iCloud/[insert your favorite consumer cloud service here]”, but the fact that this could be the beginning of a true web “file system”.

I’ve blogged before about the strengths of the web as a software development platform and the extent to which web apps are now practically the same thing as the apps that we run on our computers and phones. But, frankly, one of the biggest things holding back the vision of the web as a full-fledged “operating system” is the lack of a web-centric “file system”. I use the quotes because I’m not referring to the underlying NTFS/ExtX/HFS/etc technology that most people think of when they hear “file system”: I’m referring to basic functionalities that we expect in our operating systems and file systems:

  • a place to reliably create, read, and edit data
  • the ability to search through stored information based on metadata
  • a way to associate data with specific applications and services that can operate on them (i.e. opening Photoshop files in Adobe Photoshop, MP3s in iTunes, etc)
  • a way to let any application with the right permissions and capabilities to act on that data

Now, a skeptic might point out that the HTML5 specification actually has a lot of local storage/file handling capabilities and that services like Dropbox already provide some of this functionality in the form of APIs that third party apps and services can use – but in both cases, the emphasis is first and foremost on local storage – putting stuff onto or syncing with the storage on your physical machine. As long as that’s true, the web won’t be a fully functioning operating system. Web services will routinely have to rely on local storage (which, by the way, reduces the portability of these apps between different machines), and applications will have to be more silo’d as they each need to manage their own storage (whether its stored on their servers or stored locally on a physical device).

What a vision of the web as operating system needs is a cloud-first storage service (where files are meant to reside on the cloud and where local storage is secondary) which is searchable, editable, and supports file type associations and allows web apps and services to have direct access to that data without having to go through a local client device like a computer or a phone/tablet. And, I think we are beginning to see that with Google Drive.

  • The local interface is pretty kludgy: the folder is really just a bunch of bookmark links, emphasizing that this is a web-centric product first and foremost
  • It offers many useful operating system-like functionality (like search and revision history) directly on the web where the files are resident
  • Google Drive greatly emphasizes how files stored on it have associated viewers and can be accessed by a wide range of apps, including some by Google (i.e. attachments on Gmail, opening/editing on Google Docs, and sharing with Google+) and some by third parties like HelloFax, WeVideo, and LucidChart

Whether or not Google succeeds longer-term at turning Google Drive into a true cloud “file system” will depend greatly on their ability to continue to develop the product and manage the potential conflicts involved with providing storage to web application competitors, but suffice to say, I think we’re at what could be the dawn of the transition from web as a software platform to web as an operating system. This is why I feel the companies that should pay more close attention to this development aren’t necessarily the storage/sync providers like Dropbox and Box.net – at least not for now – but companies like Microsoft and Apple which have a very different vision of how the future of computing should look (much more local software/hardware-centric) and who might not be in as good a position if the web-centric view that Google embodies takes off (as I think and hope it will).

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What it will take to get me to switch to Chrome

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Firefox. But, given Firefox’s slow start-time and Google’s Chrome browser’s recently announced support for extensions, I did a recent re-evaluation of my browser choice. Although I’ve chosen to stick with Firefox, the comparison of the two browsers is now much closer than its ever been before to the point where I think, if the pace of Chrome development continues, I could actually switch within a few months. What I would need are:

  • Full browser synchMozilla Weave is probably the most important extension in my Firefox install. Weave provides a secure and fast method for me to have the same set of bookmarks, browser history, passwords, and preferences between every copy of Firefox that I run (i.e. on my work computer vs. on my personal computer). This has made it easier for me to not only continue research between browser sessions, but also to quickly get up to productivity on any computer with a working Firefox installation. While Chrome now supports bookmark synchronization, the lack of a history or a secure password synch makes it harder for me to have the same degree of flexibility that I have with Firefox. What’s ironic, though, is that a few years ago, I was very reliant on Google’s Browser Synch Firefox extension to do the same thing, and found Firefox to be a lot less flexible when Google stopped updating it. But, this historical precedent means I’m relatively confident it should be easy for Google to introduce a similar feature for Chrome.
  • A Firebug-like web development tool – Chrome has a lot of useful web development tools but, up until now, I have yet to see a platform built into Chrome (or any other browser) which has the same level of sophistication and feature set as Firefox’s Firebug extension. For most people, this isn’t that relevant, but as someone who’s done a fair amount of web development in the past and expect to continue to do so in the future, the lack of something as versatile and easy-to-use as Firebug is a big downside to me. With the opening up of Chrome to extension developers, I’m hopeful that it will only be a matter of time until something comparable to Firebug is developed for Chrome
  • Extensions to replicate the Greasemonkey hacks I use -Another Firefox extension which I’ve come to rely heavily on is Greasemonkey. It’s a bit difficult to explain how Greasemonkey works to someone who’s never used it, but what it basically does is allow you to install little scripts which can add extra functions to your Firefox browsing experience. These scripts can be found on repositories like Userscripts. Some scripts I’ve become attached to include Google Image Relinker (which lets me go straight to an image from Google Images and skip the intermediary site), LongURL Mobile Expander (which lets me see where shortened URLs, like those from TinyURL or Bit.ly, are actually pointing), and Friendfeed Force Word Wrap (which forces word wrap on improperly formatted Friendfeed entries). Because most of these are pretty minor browser modifications, I am hopeful that these functions will emerge when Chrome’s extension developer community gets large enough.
  • Advanced web standard support – I think its pretty odd that despite being a major proponent of the HTML5 standard and new rich browser technologies like WebGL and Native Client, that Chrome has yet to truly distance itself from its browser peers in terms of support for these new standards. True, the technologies themselves are still under development and very few websites exist which support them, but a differentiated level of support for these new technologies would give me a whole set of reasons to pick Chrome over its browser peers, especially given the direction I expect the rich web to move.

Now, in the off chance someone from Mozilla is reading this, what could Mozilla do to keep me firmly in the Firefox camp?

  • Faster release cycle – It’s difficult to maintain a constant technological edge when your software is open source, but a faster release cycle will help prolong the advantages that the Mozilla ecosystem currently have like a strong extension and theme developer community, a large user base, and a rich set of experimental projects (like Weave and JetPack and Ubiquity).
  • Faster startup time – I appreciate that my startup speed issues with Firefox may be entirely due to the fact that I have hefty extensions like Greasemonkey and Weave installed, but given that my current build of Chrome has some 16 extensions (including the Chrome version of AdBlock and Google Gears) and still loads much faster than Firefox, I believe that significant opportunity for memory management and start-time improvement still exists within the Firefox code base.
  • Better web app integration – The Chrome browser was clearly designed to run web applications. It makes it easy to load individual applications in their own windows and to set up web applications as default handlers for specific file types and events. While Firefox has come a long way in terms of its advanced web technology support, I don’t feel that enough attention has been dedicated to making the web application experience nearly as seamless. Whether this means an overhaul of the Prism project or a new way of handling browser events, I’m not sure, but this is a direction where the gap between Chrome and Firefox can and should be closed.
  • Firefox everywhere – I have been painfully disappointed in the slow roll-out of the Fennec mobile Firefox project. In a world where Safari, Opera, and Internet Explorer all have fully functioning mobile browsers, there’s no reason Firefox should be behind in this arena. Fennec also makes the Firefox value proposition more compelling with Weave as a means of synchronizing settings and bookmarks between the two.
  • More progress on experimental UI – I have been an enormous fan of the innovations in browser use which I consider to be pioneered by Mozilla – tabbed browsing, extensions, browser skinning, the “awesome bar”, etc. One way for Mozilla to stay ahead of the curve, even if they are only “on par” along other dimensions with their peers, is to continue to push on progress in the Mozilla Labs research projects like Ubiquity and JetPack, or a smarter way to integrate Yahoo Pipes!, or something akin to Cooliris’s technology (to throw out a few random ideas).
  • Advanced web technology support – Ditto as with the Google Chrome comment above.

With all of this said, I’m actually fairly happy that there are so many aggressive development efforts underway by the browser makers of our era. It looks like the future of the web will be an interesting place!

(Image credit) (Image credit – Greasemonkey) (Image credit – Fennec)

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Web 3.0

About a year ago, I met up with Teresa Wu (of My Mom is a Fob and My Dad is a Fob fame). It was our first “Tweetup”, a word used by social media types to refer to meet-up’s between people who had only previously been friends over Twitter. It was a very geeky conversation (and what else would you expect from people who referred to their first face-to-face meeting as a Tweetup?), and at one point the conversation turned to discuss our respective visions of “Web 3.0”, which we loosely defined as what would come after the current also-loosely-defined “Web 2.0” wave of today’s social media websites.

On some level, trying to describe “Web 3.0” is as meaningless as applying the “Web 2.0” label to websites like Twitter and Facebook. It’s not an official title, and there are no set rules or standards on what makes something “Web 2.0”. But, the fact that there are certain shared characteristics between popular websites today versus their counterparts from only a few years ago gives the “Web 2.0” moniker some credible intellectual weight; and the fact that there will be significant investment in a new generation of web companies lends special commercial weight as to why we need to come up with a good conception of “Web 2.0” and a good vision for what comes after (Web 3.0).

So, I thought I would get on my soapbox here and list out three drivers which I believe will define what “Web 3.0” will look like, and I’d love to hear if anyone else has any thoughts.

  1. A flight to quality as users start struggling with ways to organize and process all the information the “Web 2.0” revolution provided.
  2. The development of new web technologies/applications which can utilize the full power of the billions of internet-connected devices that will come online by 2015.
  3. Browser improvement will continue and enable new and more compelling web applications.

I. Quality over quantity

In my mind, the most striking change in the Web has been the evolution of its primary role. Whereas “Web 1.0” was oriented around providing information to users, generally speaking, “Web 2.0” has been centered around user empowerment, both in terms of content creation (blogs, Youtube) and information sharing (social networks). Now, you no longer have to be the editor of the New York Times to have a voice – you can edit a Wikipedia page or upload a YouTube video or post up your thoughts on a blog. Similarly, you no longer have to be at the right cocktail parties to have a powerful network, you can find like-minded individuals over Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook.

The result of this has been a massive explosion of the amount of information and content available for people and companies to use. While I believe this has generally been a good thing, its led to a situation where more and more users are being overwhelmed with information. As with the evolution of most markets, the first stage of the Web was simply about getting more – more information, more connections, more users, and more speed. This is all well and good when most companies/users are starving for information and connections, but as the demand for pure quantity dries up, the attention will eventually focus on quality.
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While there will always be people trying to set up the next Facebook or the next Twitter (and a small percentage of them will be successful), I strongly believe the smart money will be on the folks who can take the flood of information now available and milk that into something more useful, whether it be for targeting ads or simply with helping people who feel they are “drinking from a fire hose”. There’s a reason Google and Facebook invest so much in resources to build ads which are targeted at the user’s specific interests and needs. And, I feel that the next wave of Web startups will be more than simply tacking on “social” and “online” to an existing application. It will require developing applications that can actually process the wide array of information into manageable and useful chunks.

II. Mo’ devices, mo’ money

image A big difference between how the internet was used 10 years ago and how it is used today is the rise in the number of devices which can access the internet. This has been led by the rise of new smartphones, gaming consoles, and set-top-boxes. Even cameras have been released with the ability to access the internet (as evidenced by Sony’s Cybershot G3). While those of us in the US think of the internet as mainly a computer-driven phenomena, in much of the developing world and in places like Japan and Korea, computer access to the internet pales in comparison to access through mobile phones.

The result? Many of these interfaces to the internet are still somewhat clumsy, as they were built to mimic PC type access on a device which is definitely not the PC. While work by folks at Apple and at Google (with the iPhone and Android browsers) and at shops like Opera (with Opera Mini) and Skyfire have smoothed some of the rougher edges, there is only so far you can go with mimicking a computer experience on a device that lacks the memory/processing power limitations and screen size of a larger PC.

This isn’t to say that I think the web browsing experience on an iPhone or some other smartphone is bad – I actually am incredibly impressed by how well the PC browsing experience transferred to the mobile phone and believe that web developers should not be forced to make completely separate web pages for separate devices. But, I do believe that the real potential of these new internet-ready devices lies in what makes those individual devices unique. Instead of more attempts to copy the desktop browsing experience, I’d like to see more websites use the iPhone’s GPS to give location-specific content, or use the accelerometer to control a web game. I want to see social networking sites use a gaming console’s owner’s latest scores or screenshots. I want to see cameras use the web to overlay the latest Flickr comments on the pictures you’ve taken or to do augmented reality. I want to see set-top boxes seamlessly mix television content with information from the web. To me, the true potential of having 15 billion internet-connected devices is not 15 billion PC-like devices, but 15 billion devices each with its own features and capabilities.

III. Browser power

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While the Facebooks and Twitters of the world get (and deserve) a lot of credit for driving the Web 2.0 wave of innovation, a lot of that credit actually belongs to the web standards/browser development pioneers who made these innovations possible. Web applications ranging from office staples like Gmail and Google Docs would have been impossible without new browser technologies like AJAX and more powerful Javascript engines like Chrome’s V8, Webkit’s JavascriptCore, and Mozilla’s SpiderMonkey. Applications like YouTube and Picnik and Photoshop.com depend greatly on Adobe’s Flash product working well with browsers, and so, in many ways, it is web browser technology that is the limiting factor in the development of new web applications.

Is it any wonder, then, that Google, who views web applications as a big piece of its quest for web domination, created a free browser (Chrome) and two web-capable operating systems (ChromeOS and Android), and is investigating ways for web applications to access the full processing power of the computer (Native Client)? The result of Google’s pushes as well as the internet ecosystem’s efforts has been a steady improvement in web browser capability and a strong push on the new HTML5 standard.

So, what does this all mean for the shape of “Web 3.0”? It means that, over the next few years, we are going to see web applications dramatically improve in quality and functionality, making them more and more credible as disruptive innovations to the software industry. While it would be a mistake to interpret this trend, as some zealots do, as a sign that “web applications will replace all desktop software”, it does mean that we should expect to see a dramatic boost in the number and types of web applications, as well as the number of users.

Conclusion

I’ll admit – I kind of cheated. Instead of giving a single coherent vision of what the next wave of Web innovation will look like, I hedged my bets by outlining where I see major technology trends will take the industry. But, in the same way that “Web 2.0” wasn’t a monolithic entity (Facebook, WordPress, and Gmail have some commonalities, but you’d be hard pressed to say they’re just different variants of the same thing), I don’t think “Web 3.0” will be either. Or, maybe all the innovations will be mobile-phone-specific, context-sensitive, super powerful web applications…

(Image credit) (Image credit – PhD comics) (Image credit – mobile phone) (Image credit – Browser wars)

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