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Add-on-Con Is Google's impending browser-based operating system a concern for other browser makers?

Well, it's not a worry for Opera, according to its chief standards officer.

"I don't think it's a particularly big deal," Charles McCathieNevile told The Reg this afternoon at the browser-obsessed Add-on-Con in Mountain View, California. "The reality is that there are still lots of different devices with lots of operating systems."

With Chrome OS - due in netbooks at the end of next year - Google has shunned local applications and local data. All apps and all data are handled inside the browser - Google's browser. You can't install a separate local browser on a Chrome OS machine without, well, rewriting Google's operating system.

Yes, McCathieNevile says, there would be reason for concern if Google managed to build a monopoly with its browser-based OS. But even then, he adds, it may be possible to slip your own browser into Google's browser.

"It comes down to how open they keep it...If it's open enough and it gives you the ability to create low-level access, then you can just go and put a new browser in there," he explains. "Opera mini is in the Android marketplace as a download. We keep on getting requests for the iPhone. Those are platforms, and in theory, the browser is fundamental there too."

Of course, Opera hasn't actually put its browser onto the iPhone. Steve Jobs doesn't want it there - at least not yet. Whatever the case, building a browser for Android or the iPhone is a bit different from building a browser for another browser.

Surely, Google can't object to the idea. It has done much the same thing with Google Chrome Frame, an Internet Explorer plug-in that turns Microsoft's browser into, yes, a Google browser.

Other browser makers, however, have vehemently objected to the practice. Naturally, Microsoft doesn't like the idea. And neither does Mozilla. It's Mozilla that gives the most convincing argument. In the wake of Chrome Frame's debut, Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker and engineering vp Mike Shaver both argued that Chrome Frame would undermine security and privacy - and sow all sorts of confusion among netizens.

"The overall effects of Chrome Frame are undesirable. I predict positive results will not be enduring and - to the extent it is adopted - Chrome Frame will end in growing fragmentation and loss of control for most of us, including web developers," Baker wrote.

"If you end up at a website that makes use of the Chrome Frame, the treatment of your passwords, security settings, personalization, and all the other things one sets in a browser is suddenly unknown," she says. "Will sites you tag or bookmark while browsing with one rendering engine show up in the other? Because the various parts of the browser are no longer connected, actions that have one result in the browser you think you’re using won’t have the same result in the Chrome browser-within-a-browser."

McCathieNevile understands the stance. But he argues that there are ways of building a secure model for a browser-within-a-browser. And he argues that the user-confusion issue is smaller than you might think. "The truth," he says," is that most users don't even pay attention to browser security." ®

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