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Editor's Note: Chrome Comic Books, Yugos, Our New Global Overlords

Sep 05, 2008, 23:02 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Google's Chrome browser is the most revolutionary, transformative technology to ever hit the planet. It will end hunger, tame avarice and greed, and beat swords into plowshares. But plows are destructive, so they will be strictly ornamental and have pretty flowers growing over them.

Or, Chrome is a Web platform designed to make Web applications fast and usable, instead of slow, buggy, script-heavy kludges that make your dual-core feel like a 386. I got the former impression from reading the stampeding herds of excited Chrome stories that hit the wires, and the latter from reading Google's own documentation. The Chrome comic book that explains the engineering decisions that went into designing Chrome is a masterwork. Finally I understand garbage collection- all this time I thought that was shorthand for "I heart coding in Java, but I can't really explain why I think it's better because I don't understand it very well myself. But it has garbage collection."

The comic book has one small error; it portrays existing browser technology as a cute little Volkswagen Beetle being cruelly crushed under a workload it was never designed to carry. VWs are tough and nearly unkillable. I think the Yugo is more representative of the current state of the art- cheap, hackish, and throwaway.

So What?

So is this really a big deal? Yes, it is. Naturally Google has their own self-interest pushing this forward, and they're probably not telling everything. "Making the Web go faster so we make more money off more faster clicks!" is hardly credible. A nice by-product of some master plan, but not the plan. Some things are obvious- they're already pushing a family of Web applications, and are going to push a whole lot more. Some things are less obvious- they're already the biggest data collectors of all time, with no oversight or accountability, and no restraints on what they collect or how they collect it. Google Streetview is visible demonstration of their complete disregard for ordinary courtesy and respect for people's private spaces. Is this someone you want to trust with your data?

Less sinister is making all the Web 2.0 and Software As A Service (SAAS) hype sound less like fevered buzzword bingo, and more like an actual possibility. Making the Web browser a universal client has a lot of advantages, if it can be made fast and pleasing to the end user, instead of slow, obnoxious, and plagued by incompatibilities. I wish poxes upon everyone who dismisses entire categories of users with "oh, you're just a few percents, we don't have to care about you." Yes, you do. The Web was originally designed to be the universal communications medium- not an extension of Microsoft's lockin, not an arm of law enforcement for the rabid DRM/anti-piracy loons, and not a splintered delivery medium that plays favorites.

The good news is it should deal a mortal blow to the unholy IE/ActiveX malware vector, which mysteriously persists despite its unbroken history of fatal security flaws, and accelerate browser improvements even more. Now we have two fast-moving 21st-century Web browsers to get excited about, Chrome and Firefox. I remember a long stretch of time when there were none. Netscape was coasting on inertia and collapsing under the weight of its spaghetti innards, nobody in their right mind touched IE, and aside from some niche FOSS browsers that was all there was. Sure, there was Opera, which has always been good, but it's closed-source and never did ignite many fans.

End-run Around GPL?

One question that keeps popping up is SAAS a GPL dodge? Since the software itself is not distributed, but merely accessed by thick clients, hosts can use and modify it all they want to without triggering the releasing-modifications clause. Google itself is the poster child for this. In effect the GPL becomes more like a BSD license- any contributions back to the community are voluntary and not required.

Inspirational Reading

At any rate it's a nice day and I am tired of weighty thoughts. If you're looking for some great reading, try these two books that are generously free online: In The Beginning Was the Command Line by Neal Stephensen, and Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. I always turn back to these two books when I need to be reminded of what Free Software really means.