Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Why Google loves Chrome: Netscape Constellation

Google is serious about Chrome. The Google Pack now include Chrome rather than Firefox. Google is paying vendors to put Chrome on new machines rather than IE or Firefox. Soon Google will pay for Chrome/Linux to go on sub-$250 Linux netbooks, and they'll begin moving the Target Trutech netbook purchase price to zero.

Why is Google so serious about yet another browser?

I still see pundits asking that question, even though I answered it four months ago.

Alas, that particular meme injection looks like a total fail. I tested today on Google, Windows Live, and AOL search [4]. I found my personal post and precisely one other hit -- a comment replicated across dozens of identical spam blog (splog) posts [1],[2] (no links since the source is a splog):
... Google is not the only think-tank pursuing the 'browser-as-desktop'-concept... and far from the first. Does anyone remember 'Netscape Constellation'? That is very likely the reason Gates and Balmer finally unleashed the hounds on Marc Andreessen & Company... and probably the primary reason why 'Netscape' (in name) has been relegated to foot-note status, in internet history...
So there are at least two living people who remember Constellation, and think Google is playing the same cards -- from a vastly stronger hand. As Machiavelli taught us, old strategies never die. They just wait to be played at the right time.

For a second try at a meme injection, I'll reference a fragment of the irreplaceable but forgotten BYTE magazine (1975-1998) written in 1997 by Tom (electric brain) Halfhill [3] (emphases and footnotes mine):
March 1997 / Cover Story / Net Applications: Will Netscape Set the Standard? / Constellation: The Network-Centric Desktop (Tom Halfhill, 1997)

Microsoft and Netscape both want to change how users interact with their computers in a wired world. But each company wants to steer those changes in a different direction. Whoever prevails will probably determine the face of computing for the next decade. [5]

Both companies are preparing for an age of ubiquitous networking in which users enjoy fast access to immense resources on LANs, WANs, and the Internet..

Microsoft's Active Platform -- manifested on a PC as Active Desktop -- leverages the market dominance of Windows by blending the user interfaces of Windows and the Web...

... Netscape's Constellation takes a less Windows-centric approach and puts more emphasis on location-independent computing, regardless of the platform. No matter what kind of system you're using or where you are, Constellation presents a universal desktop called the Homeport . Although the Homeport can appear in a browser window, Netscape usually demonstrates it as a full-screen layer that buries the native OS -- certainly one reason Microsoft is not embracing Constellation.

Constellation will work on about 18 different OSes because it's created entirely with HTML, JavaScript, and Java. Netscape envisions the Homeport as the new base for launching local or remote applications and for accessing the network. It's location-independent because Constellation can save the Homeport's state (including all data files cre ated or modified during a session) on a server... Constellation lets you save copies of your files on the local machine, encrypt the copies, or securely erase all local traces of your session.

Constellation can receive infostreams through Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), Marimba Castanet, and the PointCast Network. HTTP and SMTP are the more conventional methods...

... Netscape sees more platform fragmentation. Users will access networks from Windows PCs, of course, but also from Macs, Unix systems, network computers, home videogame consoles, Web appliances, and mobile devices of every stripe. They won't all run Windows. Netscape also expects more users to borrow time on computers they don't own; for example, business travelers might answer e-mail on network computers in airports and hotels....
Where you read "Netscape Constellation", just insert "Google Chrome-stellation".

Chrome only makes sense as the foundation for Google's fundamental computing strategy, a strategy that will make full use of ultra-inexpensive (free?) netbooks, subsidized Android phones, massive network resources, and, incidentally, any Windows or OS X machine.

Chrome is where Google will start to deliver functionality that, until now, has required desktop clients.

Will Chrome-stellation succeed where Constellation failed? Microsoft now is vastly wealthier than it was in 1997.

I think there's a good chance it will work -- reason enough to consider purchasing Google stock. Microsoft is hobbled by antitrust restrictions, and the inevitable senescence [6] of the publicly traded company. Google has vastly more cash and talent than Netscape ever had, and they're not going to repeat Netscape's error of trash talking the Beast. Chrome is open source, which radically reduces the risk that Google will run into anti-trust or nationalist objections. Not least of all, those netbooks are going to wreak havoc on Microsoft's business strategy -- while only strengthening Google.

Phew. Now to check back in four more months and see if there are more than 3 relevant hits on "Google Chrome" "Netscape Constellation".

[1] Incidentally, Windows Live does a remarkably lousy job of filtering out splogs.
[2] The role of splogs in propagating memes is irresistibly reminiscent of viral propagation of gene fragments.
[3] Ironically, some suspect BYTE was collateral damage from Microsoft's scorched earth campaign against Netscape/Constellation.
[4] It occurred to me that if Google really was doing a Constellation play, they'd have learned enough from the obliteration of Netscape to keep very quiet. Maybe they'd even keep the meme from their search rankings. Now that would have been an interesting story, but it turns out that Google, as usual, had the best results by an order of magnitude.
[5] Microsoft prevailed of course, but they only got to rule unchallenged for about 6-7 years, then Google took the lead. Still, not far off.
[6] To which Apple has been the great exception, but I think they lost their way about 1-2 years ago. Google has a funny ownership structure that might give them a few more good years before the go under. Long enough, maybe, to implement "Chromestellation".


Carlos Martins said...

You have a good memory. :)
Thinking about "cloud-based" computing back then was truly revolutionary - and it probably failed because it was too soon (by nearly a decade.)

Only now people start having the always-on/affordable internet connections required for such a service to succeed.

We still need a convergence on fixed/mobile internet services, so I don't have to pay for internet at home + internet on cellphone + internet on laptop + internet on netbook... But at least, that "constellation" dream is now more likely to become reality than ever before. And HTML5 will only make it easier, blending even more the online/offline aspect of web services.

devnull said...

Nice post.

I thought I was the only one that remembered that byte article.

When a friend sent me a link to something about google wave I pointed out it had been mentioned by netscape about 10 years ago but couldn't find the article online until your reference popped up.