For a while there, the browser was winning the war.
New startups launched online services rather than packaged software. Browser makers raced to transform the Web from a place to publish documents into a general-purpose programming platform. People spent more and more time using the Web instead of software that ran natively on devices.
Then the era of modern smartphones and tablets began. And in 2012, it became clear that Web app advocates will have to work a lot harder to build a universal software foundation. Here's a look at what happened this year in the world of the Web, starting with an an extremely public vote of no confidence.
The W3C's new HTML5 logo stands for more than just the HTML5 standard.
But Facebook this year abruptly changed course, choosing instead to release native iOS andAndroid apps. The company had loved the Web approach, which let its programmers constantly release new versions that would load the same way a browser loads a fresh version of a Web site. But the performance wasn't acceptable.
Zuckerberg's long-term enthusiasm for Web apps was a pretty unappealing consolation prize.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg called his company's reliance on Web apps for mobile access to the site a major strategic error.
(Credit: James Martin/CNET)
Microsoft stiffs browser rivals With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to make a fresh start with the operating system interfaces that software can use. Windows 8 marries the older Win32 interfaces with the new WinRT. But Windows RT, the cousin that runs on mobile devices such as Microsoft's Surface that use ARM processors, lets third-party software use only the WinRT interfaces.
The result, though could be that browser choice becomes a thing of the past. Safari dominates on iOS, Android's browser on Android, and IE on Windows Phone. Even if people might want a choice, company limits often preclude it.
Do Not Track derailed Microsoft also threw a wrench in the works of a proposed new standard called Do Not Track (DNT) that's designed to let people tell Web sites not to keep tabs on their online behavior. The effort grew out of a Federal Trade Commission request for the industry to come up with a voluntary solution to the issue, since privacy advocates are not happy with the idea of behavioral targeting of advertisements.
Mozilla proposed a solution that got traction in Chrome, Opera, and Safari, in which browsers would tell Web sites not to track if people had expressly set the browser to send the message. But Microsoft, saying it wanted more privacy, turns DNT on if people accept the Windows 8 default installation settings. That might sound great for privacy, but online advertisers say they'll ignore the setting if it hasn't been expressly set by users.
Microsoft's IE has stopped its market-share losses, with Chrome and Firefox jockeying for second place.
(Credit: Data from Net Applications; chart by Stephen Shankland/CNET)
IE gets real There's a big community of people who don't like Microsoft's browser actions -- squashing Netscape in the 1990s then letting IE6 lie fallow for years.
But that's old thinking. Microsoft dragged itself back aboard the Web standards bandwagon with IE9. But this year's release of IE10 -- packaged with Windows 8 and set to arrive in finished form later for Windows 7 -- that's the stronger statement.
IE10 supports a long list of new Web standards: IndexedDB and AppCache for writing Web apps that work even when a computer doesn't have a Net connection; support for a range of pointers including multitouch interfaces; asychronous script execution for getting Web pages to load faster and run more smoothly; the file interface for better uploads and ways for apps to access data; sandbox security restrictions; and a lot of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) effects.
And it's pretty fast to load Web pages. All this means IE10 can compete -- and not just because it's built into Windows. There are still some missing features -- the WebGL interface for 3D graphics, for instance, which Microsoft thinks is a security risk -- but even without it and some other omissions, Web programmers still can look forward to IE's transition to a modern browser.
The $249 Samsung Chromebook
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Price cut makes Chromebooks worthwhile Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system, was a wacky idea when it debuted in 2009 and still not very compelling when it arrived in products called Chromebooks in 2011. But in 2012, Google and its Chrome OS allies came up with a much more compelling recipe by lowering the price.
First came the $249 Samsung Chromebook, which uses an ARM processor rather than a more conventional Intel chip. Next was the even cheaper Acer C7 Chromebook, which uses an Intel chip but drops the SSD in favor of a conventional hard drive.
Neither can come anywhere close to replacing a video-game rig or Photoshop workstation. But for the price, they can be a capable second or third machine to have around the house for e-mail, surfing, Facebook, and homework assignments. They may not have the entertainment appeal of a tablet packed with games, but they're cheaper than a new iPad, and a lot of people prefer a keyboard when it's time to type.
Samsung also released some higher-end Chromebooks and the first Chromebox, a small machine that requires an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. They're more expensive, but in combination with the significantly revamped Chrome OS and integrated with Google Drive, they're useful for a certain population.
Web apps may be struggling on smartphones and tablets, but for a laptop, they're a more realistic option. Browser makers and Web developers have work to do on mobile, but they're hardly an endangered species.