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Right in Your Browser

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
June, 2014 Issue
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Michael E. Duffy
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From Google's perspective, a faster Web benefits everyone (but no one more than Google).

 
Last month, I changed my writing tool from Microsoft Word to Google Docs. Replacing a desktop application like Word with a browser-based application is, ironically, due to Microsoft adding a feature to Internet Explorer called XMLHTTPRequest, as I explained here last month. The big impact of the feature was that getting new information from a Web server no longer required displaying a whole new page, which let browser apps look and feel like their desktop counterparts.
 
XMLHTTPRequest resulted from Microsoft’s attempt to develop a version of its Outlook mail and calendaring program that could be accessed via Web browser, a product called Outlook Web Access (OWA). The OWA team got the Internet Explorer team to provide an application programming interface (API) that would allow a Javascript (not Java!) program running in the browser to request data from a server and get the result back as an XML document (XML is just a text-based way of representing information in a structured fashion, much like the HTML used to construct Web pages).
 
Of course, when Netscape saw OWA, it added a similar feature, called XmlHTTPRequest to its browser as well, and it eventually became standardized. The important thing about the function is that the browser can carry on with whatever else it was doing—the request to the server is made “asynchronously” (as opposed to synchronously, where the browser would have to wait until the server responded). When the server finally completes the request, the browser calls a function specified by the programmer. This eliminates the “new page” effect and brought us a new thing, called AJAX.
 
Asynchronous Javascript and XML, or AJAX, was the name given to this set of technologies that led directly to browser-based applications like OWA and Google Docs. To quote Wikipedia, “AJAX is not a single technology, but a group of technologies. HTML and CSS can be used in combination to mark up and style information. The DOM is accessed with JavaScript to dynamically display, and allow the user to interact with, the information presented. JavaScript and the XMLHttpRequest object provide a method for exchanging data asynchronously between browser and server to avoid full page reloads.”
 
Microsoft delivered OWA in 2000, and Google followed suit with Gmail and Google Maps. But the term AJAX didn’t arrive until 2005. You can read all about it on Wikipedia if you’re interested (just Google “AJAX”).
 
As these browser-based applications gained momentum, one thing became very clear. Most browsers—and Internet Explorer, in particular—didn’t run Javascript (the language running in the browser that makes all the magic happen) very quickly at all. Google recognized a need for a faster browser that would help spur acceptance of its browser-based applications. In 2008, running a fast Javascript engine code-named “V8,” Google released the Chrome browser. Today, Chrome owns about 18 percent of the general browser market vs. about 58 percent for all versions of Internet Explorer.
 
Among technical folk, Chrome’s market share climbs to well over 50 percent, since, in general, these users actively choose their browser as opposed to using whatever came installed or is mandated by corporate dictum. If you aren’t using Chrome, you should be. Even my spouse uses it! To be fair, there is the occasional website that requires me to fire up Internet Explorer, but it happens less and less.
 
Google publishes the source code for its “V8” engine, and newer releases of major browsers have incorporated it to speed up their browsers as well. From Google’s perspective, a faster Web benefits everyone (but no one more than Google).
 
The real-but-hidden advance in all of this is that browser-based applications are just part of Web pages. Remember when applications came on floppy disks, or CD-ROMs, and what a hassle it was to install or update a program? Browser-based apps remove even the need to download the latest version. When you open them up, you’re running the current version of the program right away. It’s hard to emphasize the importance of this “friction-free” process. Trying a new application is completely painless. For example, check out www.draw.io. It’s a browser app that does most (if not all) of what Microsoft Visio (a diagramming tool) does, right in your browser.

 

      

 

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