Gears a Profit-Killer?

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Nik Cubrilovic at TechCrunch just posted a review of Google Gears, predicting Armageddon with the alarming headline, “Get Ready For A New Platform War. Google Gears Drives Straight At Microsoft’s Profits.”  He probably first read Dare Obasanjo’s post, “Google Gears as the Next Flash”, and then let his imagination run wild on scenarios.  Before this hype train goes completely out of control, it’s a good idea to lay out the timeline and facts and let people make more sober judgments about Gears going forward.

Both were reacting to the demo of a gears-enabled MySpace mail client prototype, shown at Google I/O.  The mail client wasn’t substantially different from the blazing fast Silverlight mail client AOL showed at MIX08, but it made news because it was the first time that a large web property has talked about possibly distributing Gears to millions of users.

Google I/O is where two former Microsoft executives keynoted in Googleskin clothing, saying “We grew up on the web, it’s in our DNA”.  One was the guy who battled for SOAP vs. REST at MSFT, and the other the former architect of Win32 and the “ahead-of-its-time” patent the web project.  On the flip side, the former architect of Gears at Google (Danny Thorpe) last week joined MSFT for the second time since shedding his Googleskin and leaving Gears.  All I can say about the DNA in this industry is, “it’s complicated”.

Anyway, these are some smart and visionary guys, so I will admit that I was inspired when they preached that Gears was the best way to move the web forward and fight proprietary runtimes.  Rather than sticking to simple offline storage, they were going to throw in the kitchen sink and any quasi-standards-inspired utility that might be useful to web site authors.  This isn’t a new vision for gears, in fact; nor was Google I/O the first that the strategy leaked into public.

Alex Russell, creator of the Dojo Toolkit, presented at MIX08 and had a lot to say about moving the web forward.  In this Channel 9 interview taken at MIX, Alex lays out the case for Gears as the basis of new bleeding edge browser innovations.  A few weeks later, he elaborated on his thoughts in his “Progress is N+1” post, neatly teeing up the next 3 months of Gears evangelism from people repeating his points.

Now that we’ve traced the influences behind Nik’s post, let’s refute a few of the claims and analyze the situation:

·         Targets Microsoft’s Profits:   This claim is very puzzling.  If anything, Gears would compete with proprietary features of Internet Explorer.  However, 100% of IE developer innovations are now squarely web standards (and creative commons where applicable),  and we don’t make any revenue from the browser anyway (let alone, profit).   Anyone who speculates that IE strategy is to drive proprietary web APIs or to drive revenue, is operating from zero evidence.  Google’s goal seems to be to ensure that the browser platform remains commoditized – a strategy we’ve already been betting on for years.

·         “Based on a True Standard”:  Fans will tell you that Gears will eventually be better than Flash or Silverlight because “Parts of Gears are based on standards and might be standardized in the future”.  When asked why they don’t operate strictly through the proven standards processes that created HTML, XML, JavaScript, and the like, they respond with slurs about how W3C is ineffective and standards bodies produced abominations like EJB.  The fact is, it is way too early to tell if Gears will help web standards or cause fragmentation of web standards efforts.  When someone argues that Gears is completely innocuous to W3C or Mozilla, you need to take that with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Overall, I think Gears is an interesting approach.  When developer innovations spread uniformly across all of the web browser clients, everyone benefits.  This is why Mozilla would talk about porting a scripting engine to IE, why Microsoft would release Activities spec under creative commons or contribute CardSpace code to other browsers.  And there are very few organization who can build cross-platform, cross-browser extensions of this complexity and deploy securely and stably to millions of machines.  The Gears engineers are world-class.  It’s interesting that this effort is being created separate from Mozilla, since there is nothing technically preventing Mozilla from porting arbitrary functionality to other browsers and devices.

But it’s also an added distraction.  Even if (and it’s a big “if”) Gears succeeds in driving forward a few innovations that make it into all browsers and provoke a few choruses of kumbaya, that won’t absolve the browser vendors from the extensive cooperation we are already doing.  Mozilla, Microsoft, Opera, Safari etc. will still have to continue working together to determine which innovations we take on behalf of the web developers.  W3C and ECMA will still need to decide which things become standards (or “recommendations” in W3C parlance).  Things already got pretty confusing with the initial ambiguity between WHAT-WG and W3C HTML5, and again when the political lines between ECMAScript and ActionScript were being tested.  As well-meaning as they may be, any new group of people creating new stuff and claiming that they represent the standards, just makes life more complicated for all of the browser vendors and potentially slows innovation as people are forced to sort through the mess.  The way this turns out is far from certain, but I’ll keep an open mind.

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