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Why Yahoo’s BrowserPlus has a long way to go

By Akash Mehta

Yahoo recently announced BrowserPlus, a browser-plugin based runtime that enables web applications to “break out of the browser”, and offer functionality typically reserved for desktop applications. While not entirely ready yet, a preview release of BrowserPlus demonstrates building some common applications purely in HTML/CSS/JavaScript, including an IRC client, a drag-and-drop photo uploader and a JSON AJAX request inspector.

With BrowserPlus, Yahoo wants to make web apps “break out of the browser”, bridging standard web technologies with OS APIs and bringing web apps a step closer to desktop apps. However, the approach isn’t at all new; Gears (formerly Google Gears) did the same with local storage for web applications last year, XUL has offered rich UIs for web applications for quite some time, and Adobe AIR changes the game entirely by exposing the OS through JavaScript APIs. Mozilla’s Prism can make web applications feel a little more like desktop applications. BrowserPlus simply goes a step further, by bringing potentially unlimited functionality to a standard web application through a plugin-within-plugin system. And guess what? All of these effectively have platform lock-in. (Flash and Silverlight get an honourable mention, requiring applications be built on their platform from day one.)

Yahoo, then, has joined the bandwagon of tech giants trying to create a platform to augment web applications. Browser plugins certainly aren’t new, but with time web developers have found they simply can’t rely on plugins and the associated platform. Just four years ago, you could be almost certain every system accessing your site had Flash installed. Today, we have iPhones and Blackberrys, Free-software locked vanilla Linux systems (e.g. Ubuntu), 64-bit browsers… essentially, Flash support is no longer a given. The challenge is explaining otherwise to “the user” – that same end user that has only just understood internet 101. Developers can no longer get away with error messages in <noscript> tags and “best viewed with this plugin” notices in footers.

Why do this on the web? Desktop applications have had the features BrowserPlus offers for years. Yahoo is trying to push that same application power to the internet world, enabling web developers to cover the missing link in their applications – desktop integration. If third-party developers can push BrowserPlus to a decent install base, Yahoo can start incorporating BrowserPlus in its own portals and other online properties (Flickr, anyone?). Yahoo already runs some of the most frequented web applications worldwide; add BrowserPlus and they can not only supercharge their applications, they can do it within their own platform. With BrowserPlus, the local OS suddenly became a lot less important.

Of course, with all these new browser plugins, users are going to be as confused as they were five years ago. If I can’t explain to my mother how to install BrowserPlus in the first place, Yahoo has a long way to go. The web has been through plugins once already, with the vast array of media formats embedded in web pages barely ten years ago. I still recall having to install QuickTime, Real, Windows Media Player and a strange audio codec on a Windows 95 machine back in the day. Needless to say, the experience was quite painful, and as developers have shifted away from browser plugins, the situation hasn’t changed all that much.

Meanwhile, the race to control the next platform is heating up, and Google’s already snagged MySpace. Yahoo will need to get moving and quickly if it wants to even come close to achieving critical mass. If it succeeds, web applications could finally match the power of desktop applications.

Via Yahoo Developer Blog.

Akash Mehta is a web developer and freelance writer specializing in web application development.

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