Why is Apple porting its browser to Windows? To take over the world, of course.

There are so many interesting things going on in the industry that it's frustrating, because I don't have time to write about them all.

Jerry Yang is now in charge at Yahoo, which in my opinion means a lot because a founder is often much more willing to revisit old assumptions and make radical changes than is someone who came in after the fact. (I know the stereotype is that founders resist change, but I've found that the exact opposite is often true, especially if the founder is moving up after spending time lower in the management chain.)

Google bought Grand Central, which underlines their interest in providing client software for mobile phones. It's a significant change for Google because up to now they have focused mostly on providing mobile versions of their existing web apps, like Maps. Grand Central is different; it's a call management system that embeds Google deeply in the life of a mobile user. It implies a much tighter relationship between Google and the user than most other Google products, and it's not something that you can easily monetize through advertising -- which makes me wonder whether Google is planning to run it standalone or integrate it into something bigger.

But the strangest recent development was Apple's decision to port its Safari web browser to Windows.

It is not easy to port a browser to a new platform. There's a huge amount of programming involved -- to do the actual port, to debug it, and to maintain and upgrade the code as people identify small incompatibilities and ask for new features. I lived through PalmSource's effort to get a good browser for Palm OS, and talked with the Be veterans about their browser work. The quick summary: it's a huge pain in the butt.

What's Apple hoping to get? The engineers at Apple who are spending their time on Safari for Windows could be creating new features for the iPhone, or helping to finish the next version of Mac OS X. Although Apple is rich enough to hire a lot of engineers, the supply of really good ones is limited, so Apple's definitely paying a price to do the port. And for what? To get people to use an alternate browser, you have to give it away for free. So there's no immediate benefit to doing the port.

A lot of Apple enthusiast sites have asked what's going on, but I'm not persuaded by most of the answers they came up with. For example, a site called Apple Matters gave four possible motivations: for bragging rights, to show Windows users what it's like to use a Mac, to give iPhone website developers a tool to test their sites, and to get revenue from search referrals to Yahoo and Google (link).

Apple Matters seems like a very good site, and to give them credit, even they were skeptical about some of the possible explanations. None of them work for me. Apple doesn't need more bragging rights, a browser is a very awkward way to show off the Mac UI, iPhone developers can buy an iPhone to test their sites, and the search referral fees from Yahoo and Google can't be all that big or everyone would be writing browsers.

I think the motivation runs deeper. It turns out that Apple didn't just port the browser to Windows; it ported the browser, the underlying Web rendering engine, and the Mac OS X programming frameworks that the browser relies on. In other words, Apple ported an entire OS layer onto Windows, and the browser is riding on top of that (link).

Now that's interesting. Apple is backing into the cross-platform OS layer business. Maybe the OS layer is just a convenient way to do the browser port. Or maybe the browser is just a trojan horse to get the OS layer on a lot more systems.

Add to this situation Apple's other recent strange announcement -- that it's "enabling" iPhone applications development by supporting Ajax web software on the iPhone. The problem with Ajax/Web2 applications is that they rely on a constant network connection in order to work. They're just thin clients to a server on the Web. Considering the iPhone's lack of true 3G connection speed, and AT&T/Cingular's well-documented data coverage limitations, Ajax-style development is about the worst thing you could do on the iPhone. What the developers wanted was the ability to create native Mac OS X applications, and Apple blew them off.

Why piss off the developers, and why put such a huge handicap on people supporting your critical new product?

Maybe the iPhone is so screwed up internally that it can't support third party apps. Sure, and maybe Apple wants to port Safari to Windows just for ego.

If you want a single idea that explains both actions, it's this: Apple realizes that in the long term, the development platform that matters is not the OS on the hardware, but the software layer that the web apps run on (I believe that; you can read more here). Apple realizes that this layer will eventually become good enough to displace native personal computer apps. Web apps then become both an opportunity and a challenge for Apple. The opportunity is that they're a way to take down Microsoft. The challenge is that the same process that obsoletes Windows obsoletes other PC operating systems, including Mac OS.

This makes it vital for Apple to create its own Web apps layer, so it can control its own destiny and increase its power. That goal would be so important that Apple would be willing to handicap iPhone apps development in the short term in order to make developers focus on the web apps platform in the long term.

If that's Apple's thinking, then the next thing to watch for will be Apple gradually adding more features to its OS layer, in the guise of browser APIs and feature enhancements. Those features will be deployed at the same time on the Mac, the iPhone, and Windows Safari. And Apple will start evangelizing web app developers to use them.

The war to come. This could set up a brutal competition in software layers, between Adobe Apollo, Microsoft Silverlight, Sun's revised Java, Firefox's platform, and Apple. Google fits in there somewhere as well, but it's not clear if they'll try to create their own platform or work with several other players.

I think this is where the most interesting action's going to be in applications development in the next few years. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

It is good to have choices but earlier we had to code for IE and firefox now it is going to be for safari too !

A. Tawakkol said...

I totally agree with your point of view. More over what I believe supports your assumption is the .mac thing Apple has been patiently supporting for years now and their iLife family of products that all end up with a way or another on the Internet with a .mac account

Anonymous said...

Looks like the competitionn is starting to heat up. Palm's Jeff Hawkins was ahead of his time.


Web-Accessible, Smartphone-Centric Applications [The "WASCA Manifesto"] featuring wireless (+/- wired) syncing to smartphones!

This is the first REAL paradigm shift we've seen since the dawn of the "PC Era", but it appears that Palm is too afraid/incompetent/slow to embrace it fully. How far to take this new way of thinking depends on whether a given company makes a lot of money selling desktops/laptops and/or software for desktops/laptops. If the company (e.g. Palm) has no vested interest in desktop/laptops and the software that runs on them, then the smart phone can be completely freed to become the new PC. Purely Web-based applications (available through any Internet-connected dumb terminal/desktop/laptop) would then allow users to have access to personal files with the added bonus of larger screens and keyboards whenever necessary. Taken to the extreme, users would be able to have real-time syncing (through broadband connections) to their smartphone of data being entered into these Web-based applications. A simpler solution would involve entering data into Web-based applications which would then be backed up (either over the air, via WiFi, via Bluetooth or via wired connection) to the smartphone with a user-initiated sync. With online storage available (at a price) for the data generated with Web-based applications, this syncing could occur at the users whim.

Companies selling desktops/laptops and/or software for desktops/laptops would obviously prefer for users to sync data to their more full-featured applications residing on desktops/laptops, while leaving the Web-based applications for more simplistic data entry and viewing.



5) How effectively and how quickly will Microsoft and Apple be willing to respond to the threat posed by the meme of smartphone as the "new PC"? Will these companies be willing to move away from designs and revenue models derived from the traditional dogma of PCs that haven't changed in over 25 years? In the past, it has been Palm that sat still and literally gave away potentially lucrative markets that it was previously ideally positioned to dominate. In recent years, Palm has lost the mobile email, MP3 player, personal media player and smartphone markets to the likes of Blackberry, Apple, Samsung, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, etc. primarily because of Palm's arrogance, laziness and reluctance to innovate. How likely is it that Palm would then be able to turn the tables and outinnovate its competition with a lineup of "Smartphone PCs" and "pan-connected PalmTops®/PseudoLaptops"? (Unlike Palm) Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Adobe, RIM, etc. are not run by fools. Microsoft especially would seem likely to be willing to sacrifice profits in traditional markets (desktop/laptop software) in order to compete aggressively in a new marketplace, primarily to prevent the competition from establishing a foothold.

Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective on Apple. I disagree, however, with your Google/Grand Central comment. I don't think Google has any great desire to be in the mobile device software business (although they will be since they like to spend lots of money - which they have :) - and have a large team doing so now). They do, however, want to be your 'home base' on all devices that attach to the net, since that's the starting point for their real business of advertising. The significance of owning GC is the phone number. Think about the way people attach their identity to their phone number (remember the battle to give the consumer ownership of their number for switching a few years back?). With GC, you have taken the next logical step in owning your own number, completely independent of the carrier.

I have been using the service for the past few months and while it definitely has a lot of room for improvement, I find that it makes my various phones truly interchangeable devices that I pick up based on my plans for the day. If I just want to make sure I have voice service I pick the smallest, most convenient pocket sized device. If I want data service I pick up the one with the best and biggest screen (soon to be an iPhone, I hope :).

By owning GC, the g-boys become my home base for all my mobile activity. This is the real key to the acquisition (IMHO).

Anonymous said...

Ok, I like most of your articles, but this one is a big DUUUHHHH!!
Come on, none of this is revolutionary. We've known this was coming for sometime now.
Also we've always known it would take a big player such as Apple or MS to REALLy get the ball rolling on this.

Michael Mace said...

php programmers wrote:

>>It is good to have choices but earlier we had to code for IE and firefox now it is going to be for safari too !

Yeah, I'm worried that we're going to end up with a series of incompatible web software layers. That would be a big pain in the neck for developers. Just getting my blog template to (mostly) work on both Firefox and IE was hard enough, and that's baby stuff compared to writing a web app.

On the other hand, I strongly believe the Windows monopoly stifled innovation. So maybe it's time to weight things more toward diversity.

Doug wrote:

>>I don't think Google has any great desire to be in the mobile device software business

Then help me understand why they bought Android.

>>I have been using the service for the past few months

Ahhh, okay. You're ahead of me then.

>>I find that it makes my various phones truly interchangeable devices that I pick up based on my plans for the day. If I just want to make sure I have voice service I pick the smallest, most convenient pocket sized device. If I want data service I pick up the one with the best and biggest screen (soon to be an iPhone, I hope :).

Cool. I'm not sure how many people want to have several phones, although in Europe it's not uncommon. Anyway, that's an interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous wrote:

>>this one is a big DUUUHHHH!! Come on, none of this is revolutionary. We've known this was coming for sometime now.

Okay, thanks for the feedback, and actually I'm kind of relieved to hear you say that. I had been worried that people were going to tell me I was reading too much into Apple's announcement.

Or maybe Apple has just brainwashed all of us into believing that everything they do is driven by a devious master plan.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's certainly interesting and assumes there's a big, long term strategy at play here. You may be right, but my notion is much simpler: Apple did it to sell iPhones. There are three things Apple claims the iPhone does better than any other mobile device: make phone calls, play music, and surf the web. iTunes on the PC drove sales of the iPod, so it stands to reason that if you can get Windows users to come to depend on Safari, they'll want the mobile version of that, too. Why else would they launch it in the middle of the iPhone countdown sequence?


Michael Mace said...

Ahhh, now that's more like the sort of comment I was expecting. You may be right, Avi, but my take is that the expense involved in porting the browser is too great for that to be the only motivation.

Anonymous said...

Are you suggesting Apple will develop a sort of interpretative platform like "Java"? If so, web apps can run on any "platform", as java code does.

Honestly, if this is the plan I don't see anything revolutionary.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comment, anonymous.

I'm fascinated by the diversity of the responses to this post. Some folks are saying, "no, there's no big master plan here, it's just a tactical move to support the iPhone." Others are saying, "Yeah, it's a strategic move to set a programming standard on the web, but that's not news."

Wow. It's interesting that we can look at the same information and reach such different conclusions.

Anonymous, in response to your question, I'm not saying that Apple is trying to create something exactly like Java. But the spirit is similar.

My basic view, which I've explained in other posts, is that the center of innovation in applications development is moving from the PC to the Web. The big innovation is happening now in Web 2.0 apps that run through the browser rather than native apps that run on the desktop OS.

A lot of companies in Silicon Valley are still in denial about this, especially the ones that have big applications franchises built on old-style program development. They look at web apps and say, "they're not as powerful or fast as our applications." That's what you hear all the time from Microsoft about online competitors to Office, for example.

But if you look at the rate of innovation of web apps and compare that to the rate of innovation of the Web 2 crowd, I think it's clear that the Web 2 folks will be ahead in the future. The only hard part is picking which year the crossover will occur in.

This shift in power has a huge effect on the companies that make operating systems. The Windows monopoly is built mostly on the fact that you have to buy Windows in order to run Windows apps. Same thing, frankly, for Macintosh.

If in the future we're in a situation where the apps can run on any device via the browser, the traditional OS companies lose most of their power. This cuts the heart out of Microsoft -- and it does something similar to Apple as well.

I think Apple's action is an example of a company that depends on the OS-centric model trying to prepare itself for the Web-centric world. The other competitors working this issue include:

--Microsoft Silverlight
--Adobe Apollo (or whatever they call it these days)
--What Sun is trying to do with Java
--Firefox 3's offline apps support
--Maybe Google Gears (although it's pretty rudimentary at the moment)
--And now maybe Apple with Safari

Will we end up with one Web OS standard? Several? What will that do to the existing large players? What will it do to small developers? Every tech company is going to be heavily affected by the outcome. I think this is shaping up to be the most important competitive battle in the tech industry in this decade, and it'll do a lot to determine what computing looks like through 2020 -- just as the Windows vs. Mac battle in the 1980s shaped computing in the 1990s and beyond.

Given the importance of this battle, it hasn't gotten nearly the amount of coverage it should have in the business and mainstream media. I know it may be old hat to some of you reading this note, but I can tell you it's still very new news to a lot of the people I consult with, both inside and outside the tech industry.

Anonymous said...

There are more indications, that the OS won't matter anymore in the future, for example Parallels Coherence.

Check out my blog-entry about that topic, where I cited you: