May 12, 2008

Brad Neuberg, Google Gears, and the future of the Web

Author: Bruce Byfield

"I like to make browsers do things that they weren't supposed to do," Brad Neuberg likes to say. As a developer advocate for Google Gears, Neuberg has a wide scope for pursuing this interest, not only as an active developer, but also as a frequent speaker at conferences. His message is that Gears is not a means of working offline with Internet content -- which, so far has been its main function in applications like Google Reader and Google Calendar -- but also a potential universal update mechanism for browsers that could help to keep the Web free.

In many ways, Neuberg seems a natural fit for Google's Gears team and its emphasis on working offline. Having once had the ambition of making a Web-based collaborative word processor that would work offline, he is also the writer of Dojo Offline and Dojo Storage, two of the major components in Dojo Toolkit, the well-known JavaScript and Ajax library. In addition, he has worked on getting a wiki he develops called Kiwi to work offline, and with the commercial company Rojo, a Web-based feed reader. He says, "In general, I've been thinking about how to make new kinds of browsers, new versions of the Web -- pushing the boundary and hacking around with them."

Yet, despite this fit, Neuberg admits that he hesitated before joining Google, worrying whether the corporation's support of Gears would promote or hamper its adoption and large term goals. "I'll be honest," he says, "the question caused mixed feelings in me when I joined. I'm an open source guy, an Ajax guy, and I wanted to make sure that I could really keep fighting the good fight." Even prefacing the project name with "Google" seem something for Neuberg to question at first.

However, after working for Google for half a year, Neuberg sounds convinced that he made the right choice. "It's been pretty good so far," he says. "What I'm doing is advocating for developers and the Web. I spend a lot of time evangelizing internally for things that interest developers."

He says he spends much of his time within the company urging the use of particular open standards, and suggesting smaller companies to get involved with Gears. "I personally believe that innovation happens from smaller companies and from the grass roots," Neuberg says. "Sometimes, I'll actually bring in external people if they've got something important. I'll just bring them over to the office." At other times, he relays criticism from the Gears community and related projects, trying to ensure that Google hears complaints and deals with them.

Outside of Google, Neuberg spends a lot of time interacting with free software projects that are Web-focused, both on the Web and at conferences. "I would love to see closer integration between Gears and YUI [Yahoo User Interface]," he says. Similarly, although he is in personal contact with those developing Mozilla's offline capabilities, he says, "I'd like to be in better communication with Mozilla, because I think our goal is the same: making the Web newer and more powerful, and putting more stuff into it."

Why the Web needs an updater

For Neuberg -- as for most developers -- the idea of expanding the Web's capabilities is intriguing in itself. But both inside and outside Google, his argument is that there's more at stake than just a particular piece of technology. In fact, he does not even seem particularly concerned whether Gears or some rival project takes on the role he envisions. What matters, he says, is that finding a solution to the problems of the Web is essential not only to the continued evolution of the Web, but also to its continued freedom.

"The last two years, we've seen the rise of the Web again as a potential applications platform," Neuberg says. "HTML was rebranded as Ajax, and we began to see the power of that. Our expectations of the Web have increased, the problems are accelerating, and more folk are pushing the Web, so they need to solve all these issues. We've been blessed with a multiplicity of options in the last year -- Adobe AIR, Silverlight, things like that -- so conversation's happening about how the Open Web fits into that. On a deeper level too, what's the next step? Where do we go from here? It's like a train in motion that we're trying to change or fix at the same time that we're traveling."

The trouble is, according to Neuberg and the Gears team, the Web is currently developing too slowly to meet all these increased expectations and demands.

"Right now," Neuberg says, "it's five to 10 years to get anything into the infrastructure of the Web. We don't even have multimedia on the Web. It's 2008, and we don't have audio-visual support in the browser. I mean, you should not need a plugin. We should be able to have the stuff in [the browser], and getting it there just takes too long. SVG [Scalable Vector Graphics] is trying to do that, but SVG came out -- what? in 1998? We need a better set of update tools."

He makes an analogy between the current situation on the Web and the American constitution. An important reason why the United States has survived, he suggests, is because Article 5 of the Constitution specifies how it can be amended. In the same way, Neuberg says, "The Web is going to be around, so let's make sure that we give it an update mechanism."

To further complicate the situation, Neuberg suggests that only a short time exists in which such changes are possible. "There's only a brief period of time in which things are fluid and can change," he says. "For radio, it was the '20s, and for TV the '50s. Then things crystallize, and we have to live with those changes. Right now, the Internet is malleable, and we can put our stamp on it." But without an update mechanism, he says, "It can become too fixed, and the only way to change it then will be to shatter it. And it could be replaced by something that's proprietary."

"Gears may not be the update mechanism for the Web," Neuberg admits. Moreover, whatever updater is added risks taking as long to add to the Web's infrastructure as any other new feature. All the same, he believes that Gears, or something like it, may still be the easiest way to protect the openness of the Web. "If we can get one thing in there that is cross-browser and cross-platform," he says, "then it's much easier to do that than have a million different pieces that we have to get in." Additionally, adding those other pieces will be much easier once an accepted mechanism exists for helping browsers to use them.

The whole idea is a calculated gamble, as well as an attempt to solve a problem that most people have barely thought about. Yet, despite its novelty, Neuberg says that his argument is being well-received when he talks.

"Folks who are the actual developers are really excited," he says. "It's like, 'Let's get out of this impasse we're in and on to really interesting things.' We all depend on the Web, and if we don't find a way to integrate the Web in a good way, it will hurt all of us."


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