Sunday, September 21, 2008

Google Chrome: a browser or a runtime environment?

Google Chrome has received a lot of press from the date of its release, even on mainstream media: from a technological point of view there are several interesting innovations that undoubtedly will "inspire" similar solutions in other browsers. Amongst them those to deserve a mention are the "multiprocess" architecture (which is a very interesting - yet nerdy - topic and would deserve a post of its own), the high performance JavaScript runtime (on which I already commented here), the Gears plug-in and development framework (also available for Safari on Mac OS X) plus some neat Human Interface solutions like the new "blank page" with the most visited sites, a simple but really effective concept.

Everything is really interesting especially for hackers but I doubt that these single innovations in themselves will make the average Internet user go wild. It may be interesting therefore to think for a moment about the whys behind this move by Google, leaving conspiracy theories aside. 

I do really think that Chrome shouldn't simply be seen as a browser but more fully as a runtime environment. Google is providing first class services that are becoming crucial for the life of people. Mail, calendaring, document management and editing, photo sharing, blogging, web traffic analysis, maps, web application hosting, web advertising management, not to mention Internet searches, for which the Mountain View company name has become a verb in the English dictionary ("To Google"), are just a subset of the services Google provides, services that have become essential, if not strategical, for the life and business of million of users worldwide.

These services are becoming more and more sophisticated and powerful, so much to become real contenders to "desktop" based applications. At the same time broadband Internet connections have become faster and widely available, even for mobile users. The motto "The Network is the Computer" by Sun Microsystems has become a reality these days. But every computer to be really useful needs first-class software. 

Every browser can be seen as a runtime environment for web based applications. But, as Microsoft and Apple know well, you can really guarantee the best possible experience to users if you have the chance to control "both" the runtime environment "and" the software that runs on top of it. I think that the Google move behind Chrome should be read this way. Web based applications must be fully accessible to everyone, perfectly compatible with the most common browsers (Internet Explorer, like it or not is the most used browser in the world) and fully compliant to W3C web standards. But of course Google people can't control how their web applications run on these browsers: they could have simply advocate their cause on open source projects (Firefox and WebKit to start with) but by creating Chrome they are indirectly pushing others to follow on their path.

Microsoft has fully acknowledged the threat of Google web applications and is trying hard to answer with various on-line services (Microsoft Office Live Workspace, Live Mesh) that promise to run in a multi-platform/browser fashion (Windows and Mac OS X - but not Linux apparently -, IE and Firefox). Another Internet war is on the horizon...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Google Chrome/Chromium on Mac OS X (not _for_ Mac OS X!)

For all the macheads over there: even if Google Chromium isn't officially available on Mac OS X there's a nice port (also for Linux) based on Wine. CodeWeavers, the company behind Wine, has prepared an easy to install package for Mac OS X. It works nicely: of course the look is very windows-ish (having Wine behind, it couldn't be different) but at least you can experience first-hand the latest web sensation! Enjoy!

JavaScript gets faster

JavaScript these days is getting increasingly important and strategic in Web applications design. AJAX frameworks significantly improve users' experience, changing the balance of code development from the server to the client side. Meaningful in this sense is the SproutCore framework whose goal is to allow the development of web applications that look and behave as close as possible to desktop apps.

In this scenario JavaScript performance becomes crucial. Again some open source projects raised the speed bar higher, in a significantly short time. Two projects must be cited here: one is v8, the by now ultra-famous JavaScript interpreter in Google Chrome. For a quick and nice explanation of its major "tricks" you can also give a look at the Google Chrome Comic Book (impatient JavaScript fans can directly jump to page 13).

The second project is SquirrelFish Extreme, the new generation JavaScript interpreter of the Safari browser (or better, of the WebKit open source web browser engine). Benchmarks should always be taken with a grain of salt but performance gains of this new implementation are really astonishing.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

On web censorship

In Abu Dhabi (I'm just back home by the way) you can't access Flickr, which annoyed me quite a bit since it is definitely my favourite Social Networking/Web 2.0 site. Typing its URL this is the page that you could get:

At first I thought that the site was censored because maybe somebody has published some pictures that could have been considered offensive for the UAE as a state or for their religion. But I noticed that YouTube on the contrary was freely accessible and this was a bit of a contradiction. I discovered that was censored but the Italian channel was not (and that definitely should have been an oversight for them). 

I asked some locals (foreigners living there, not real Emirati) about that and they told me that Social Networking sites were in general looked unfavourably. Only recently the access to some of the most important sites, Facebook to start with, was unblocked. Apparently from a technical point of view the censorship can be easily avoided (I don't say if through the use of an external, free DNS system, or through some HTTP tunneling service; I didn't care to check): for the less experts there are some small computer shops in Abu Dhabi where you can go and ask to have your PC configured to avoid the block.

Social Networking sites aside another block was on Skype as you can see from the following image.
This has probably less to do with politics and more with economy: in the UAE there is a semi monopolistic Telco named Etisalat which is surely making huge amount of money from international calls: just consider in fact that 81% of the residents in the UAE are not Emirati! Last day I was there I read on a newspaper that apparently the Communication Authority of UAE requested a formal Telco license to allow Skype to operate. Anyway you can't access the Skype site but you can use the program if you have it already installed on your system. In this case you cannot recharge your credit to call international "standard" phone numbers.

Back in Italy I've noticed that ThePirateBay site is still inaccessible from Telecom Italia ADSL networks. This is what you get when you enter the site URL:
The Internet is becoming more and more "orwellian" all over the world...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Microsoft might be big but it is just not cool

OK, apparently I'm talking way too much about Microsoft but I just read an article on the UAE newspaper The National titled as this blog entry. It has a hilarious opening line that definitely deserves a mention: "Google's logo is plastered on the side of a space rocket. Apple has Nokia worried about its market share, Facebook is adding 10 million users every month. And Microsoft just launched a new mouse.".

This is the mouse by the way.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Something about the Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Committee

I went today to the Abu Dhabi Systems & Information Committee (ADSIC), a governmental agency in charge of defining ICT standards for the Abu Dhabi Emirate. Their goal is to make sure that every IT implementation (whether hardware, network or software system) for public authorities, administrations and public companies complies with high-level quality standards.

They are managing a great deal of projects and I had just the chance to speak a bit about some of them. It definitely worths a mention their work on Architecture & Standards. They produced a 340 pages book with detailed guidelines (which they call the Abu Dhabi IT Architecture & Standards Framework) on how to implement IT systems, giving a close view at every possible part of the process, starting from the modeling techniques way down to the infrastructure and to the "operations" needed to maintain the system. For every layer of the framework they provided detailed explanations and a set of "standards", that is a reference list of technologies whose use may be "mandatory", "recommended" or still "under observation". The overall quality is very good even if I spotted an incredible mistake in the chapter called "Web Server" that most definitely need some technical editing.

Another very interesting project I spoke about today is the Abu Dhabi Spatial Data Infrastructure (AD-SDI), an "umbrella" name under which they have defined their ambitious GIS strategy. There's also a lot going on in this field (e.g. two GIS portals, one for the public and the other one for governmental agencies): but the best one for me is the fact that they are going to set up the strategy (from the technical, the legal and the administrative viewpoints) to allow a full geographical data exchange between governmental agencies.

To put it simple, each agency manages its own private data (e.g. archaeological data sets for ADACH, environmental data for the Environment Agency and so on) and is the sole entity responsible for those data. But they can get all the geographical information created by the other agencies through AD-SDI. This way the agencies can use a remarkable number of data-sets, all up-to-date and verified, minimizing the risk of duplication and mistakes.
Also if some data can be provided only by external suppliers (e.g. satellite photos) a special license will be acquired in order to allow the use of the data for all Abu Dhabi governmental agencies: one buys, everybody uses.

I also spoke, although very briefly, about their strategy regarding service integration. It is a new initiative and probably too soon to talk about it. For the curious there's a small presentation in their web site.

Kudos to the ADSIC people for their great job! Abu Dhabi has still to fill up the technological gap with the most advanced countries but it is definitely projecting itself into the future at remarkable speed: will Italy (or Europe in general) keep the pace?

Monday, September 01, 2008

In Abu Dhabi

I'm in Abu Dhabi at the moment, following a project for the nice guys of Liberologico with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (ADACH).

I'll blog in the near future about some interesting things regarding the project. I just took some pix that I wanted to publish on the spot on Flickr but I found out that Flickr access is forbidden from the Emirates!!! What a pity!

Anyway this is Abu Dhabi skyline at night!