Sonntag, September 07, 2008

Add-ons for Chrome - or - A new architecture for browsers

On September 2nd, on Tuesday, Google released Chrome -- their own web browser. Chrome has a simple, unobtrusive user interface, it's based on WebKit, it's powered by a new JavaScript implementation, it runs a process for each new tab, and it promises a new approach to safe browsing. On this one, Chrome failed. Chrome has some severe security holes Google needs to fix. Nonetheless, I like the new browser.

Some hours after Google had released Chrome, I read a lot of comments about the Chrome experience. Most users seemed to be quite enthusiastic, some few were not. But one sort of comments caught my attention: Some folks argued that Firefox users will stay with Firefox. Why? Because of all these nice add-ons you can extend Firefox with.

My spontaneous reaction was: Who needs add-ons?

Before you laugh at me. I run Firefox with extensions like Firebug, Web Developer, ScrapBook and others. I use them extensively and like them a lot. Who wants to miss Firebug, for instance? Nobody, right?! I wouldn't use a browser without my beloved add-ons. And one is for sure. A browser without extension capabilities won't make it in the long run. (Ok, I'm not sooo sure.)

So what made me think "Who needs add-ons"?

I contemplated some time over my spontaneous reaction. Forgive me, I don't know much about how to write extensions for Firefix. I am an extension user, not an extension programmer. But my gut feeling tells me that the approach to extensions in Firefox is wrong. It's the worst Google could do to copy the extension mechanism of Firefox. I should rephrase my first reaction: "Who needs such an add-on architecture?"

Instead of criticizing Firefox's extension mechanism, of which I don't know much about, let me sketch an alternative approach to extensions.

Assume a "naked" browser: no buttons to click on, no url field, no menu, nothing. Assume that all the browser does after startup is run a JavaScript program. Let's call this program the "Controller". The key point is: You can change the Controller. Don't like the default Controller? Change it. The Controller is under your control!

The default Controller is a JavaScript program that creates buttons to click on and implements a history of web pages visited. It provides the url input field and displays suggestions while you type. It lets you have menus and so on.

Got it? The Controller is a program that creates a user interface that mimics Firefox. Or Chrome. Or IE. Or Opera. Or Safari. Whatever you want.

If you type in a url in the url field and hit enter, it's the Controller, which -- so to speak -- creates an IFrame and loads the given web page into that frame. So the web page remains fully under control of the Controller.

It does not require that much imagination to see that the Controller can easily be extended by -- right, by extensions or add-ons. These extensions are just other JavaScript programs, which are plugged into the Controller.

To oversimplify things, I envision a browser, which consists only of an HTML and CSS rendering engine and a virtual machine running JavaScript. The rest is initiated by an ordinary JavaScript program using web technology. In other words: My favorite browser is fully programmable with web technology.

The idea is simple, isn't it? It thrills me.

The development of such a "naked" browser inevitably raises questions like:

  • How do we guarantee that the Controller doesn't loose control?

  • How do we compose add-ons? How do we avoid interference of add-ons?

  • Do we need a component architecture? Or do we need a service-oriented architecture?

  • How do we ensure safe browsing and secure execution?


It's much about architecture thinking and a JavaScript implementation that supports fundamental notions of modularization, safety and security. These are aspects which should IMHO drive the standardization activities of JavaScript. Implementors of browsers should radically rethink the way browsers are built and function. Google did a first, tiny step in that direction with Chrome. But there's more to strive for.

1 Kommentar:

Alex hat gesagt…

Without an adblocker a lot of pages become unwatchable. And exactly why should every flash app run automatically? I want control over my browser and those controls don't come with the default installer.