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What does Gears mean for the mobile web?

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Analysis Google's first web browser is here, and I've been trying it out.

The diminutive feature set, in line with our expectations of Google, is welcome. However, as with IE7, I find it hard to orient myself in a browser without a menu bar. At the end of the day, as Google put it itself, it's just another WebKit-based browser.

The under-the-hood improvements are similar to what Symbian did with platsec, its platform security model - the rationalising of a process as a unit of security, so that any code that is not part of the code browser runs in its own process, with a policed IPC mechanism to share information between processes.

Chrome applies this process model to plug-ins such as Flash. In my little experiment I didn't notice any significant difference in speed compared with Firefox or Safari on Windows. But the Chrome task manager is a welcome feature. It was insightful to be able to see that the Flash process consumed around 26MB when playing a video, and that Gmail is a 16Mb process.

I'm not that happy with Firefox 3. My browser now crashes daily, or I get an annoying "script is taking too long to execute" message, which paralyses it. So it is nice to see Google bring some computer science principles to the reliability of the browser.

Ultimately, web programming is ugly, full of clumsy advances and organically evolved APIs which are inconsistent across browsers. It's a pain - and Google know this as much as anyone in the industry. Although the timing may be a bit odd, given the rise of Firefox, it arrives as it has become clear that the browser is no more than a commodity item.

The essential features of the browser, like the word processor before it, have already been established. Additional features can be provided by web pages and web services as needed, such as spell checking, centralised bookmark management or RSS feeds.

Perhaps the subtlest but most important feature of Chrome is the bridge between desktop and web applications. The inclusion of Google Gears allows Google's web services to work offline. But Chrome users can also create a shortcut to web pages on their desktop from within Chrome. Clicking on the short cut launches the web page in a minimal "app like" window, with no address bar or navigation buttons.

So now I can have short cuts to Gmail and Google Calendar, and when gears offline support rolls out, they will seem a lot more like a standard desktop applications.

A headache for Nokia

But what about Gears as a credible mobile development API? Google doesn't need Android to succeed to make money. What it needs is a widely adopted platform to deploy its services, and a platform which provides a good user experience and some place to stick adverts. Android feels like a backup plan - a seed for the market sponsored by Google, rather than core business.

I recently wrote about the problem facing Google in getting its applications onto Nokia's phones, since Nokia is unlikely to release its own WebKit-based browser with Gears support. Google has announced Mobile Gears for Windows Mobile, but that only addresses a tiny fragment of the market. Not only does it cost a lot of money to run a service over many incompatible handsets, but technically it’s a tricky job.

But Gears poses potentially greater problems for Nokia. As I see it, Nokia's rebranding as a services company puts some of its services in direct competition with Google. It's not in Nokia's best interests to allow a Google Gears plug-in for its WebKit-based browser.

If the Chrome browser is made available as a S60 download, then Google Mail and other applications will come with offline support as standard, and provide a uniform platform for Google to deploy their services on desktop and mobile.

Nokia has much to lose due to its "service company" aspirations if Gears runs across multiple handsets. Once you have a single sign-on to services from Google, it means that the barrier is lowered for existing subscribers to try out new services. You can’t really make users on mobile type in their email address, password and memorable phrase each time.

The problem for Nokia is that Google is a much stronger service brand, associated with search, mail, maps, even calendar. I can certainly see why Nokia would prefer to go down the silverlight/widget route rather then opening up the browser. ®

Twm Davies is a software developer and consultant. He blogs at mobile rōnin, where these thoughts first appeared.

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