Most of the time, when a bit of software you work on floats out of your life and into the collective past, there’s a sense of mourning. But that’s not how I feel about Chrome Frame.
The anodyne official blog post noting the retirement six months hence isn’t the end of something good, it’s the acknowledgement that we’re where we wanted to be. Maybe not all of us, but enough to credibly say that the tide has turned. The trend lines are more than hopeful, and in 6 months any lingering controversy over this looks like it’ll be moot. Windows XP is dying, IE 6 & 7 are echoes of their former menace, and IE 8 is finally going the same way. Most of the world’s users are now at the front of the pack where new browser releases are being delivered without friction thanks to auto-update. The evergreen bit of the web is expanding, and the whole platform is now improving as a result. This is the world we hoped to enable when Chrome Frame was first taking form.
I joined Google in December ’08 expressly because it’s the sort of company that could do something like Chrome Frame and not screw it up by making it an attention hogging nuisance of a toolbar or a trojan-horse for some other, more “on brand” product. GCF has never been that, not because that instinct is somehow missing from people that make it through the hiring process; no, GCF has always been a loss-maker and a poor brand ambassador because management accepted that what is good for the web is good for Google. Acting in that long-term interest is just the next logical step.
Truth be told, we weren’t even the right folks for the job. We were just the only ones both willing and able to do it. MSFT has the freaking source code for IE and Windows. There was always grim joking on the team that they could have put GCF together in a weekend, whereas it took us more than a year and change to make it truly stable. Honestly, if I thought MSFT was the sort of place that would have done something purely good for the web like GCF, I probably would have applied there instead. But in ’08, the odds of that looked slim.
Having run the idea for something like Chrome Frame past one of the core IE team engineers at MIX that year, the response I got was “oh, you’re some kind of a dreamer…a visionary”. I automatically associate the word “visionary” with “time-wasting wanker”, so that was 0 for 2 on the positive adjective front. And discussions with others were roughly on par. Worse, when the IE team did want to enable a cleaner break with legacy via the
X-UA-Compatible flag, the web standards community flipped out in a bout of mind-blowing shortsightedness…and MSFT capitulated. Score 1 for standards, -1 for progress.
For me, personally, this has never been about browsers and vendors and all the politics wrapped up in those words: it has been about making the web platform better. To do that means reckoning with the problem from the web-developer perspective: any single vendor only ships a part of the platform that webdevs perceive.
Web developers don’t view a single browser, or a single version of a browser that’s on hundreds of millions of devices as a platform. Compared to the limited reach of “native” platforms, it seems head-scratching at first, but the promise of the web has always been universal access to content, and web developers view the full set of browsers that make up the majority of use as their platform. That virtue that both makes the web the survivable, accessible, universal platform that can’t be replaced as well as the frustrating, slow, uneven development experience that so many complain about.
The only way to ensure that web developers see the platform improving is to make sure that the trailing edge is moving forward as fast as the leading edge. The oldest cars and power plants are exponentially worse polluters than the most modern ones; if you want to do the most for the world, get the clunkers off the road and put scrubbers on those power plants. Getting clunkers off the road is what upgrade campaigns are, and GCF has been a scrubber.
All power plants, no matter how well scrubbed, must eventually be retired. The trend is now clear: the job coming to a close. Most of the world’s desktop users are now on evergreen browsers, and with the final death of WindowsXP in sight, the rest are on the way out. Webdevs no longer face a single continuous slope of pain. We can consider legacy browsers as the sort of thing we should be building fallback experiences for, not first-class experiences. The goal of making content universally accessible doesn’t require serving the exact same experience to everyone. That’s what has always made the web great, and now’s the time for non-evergreen browsers to take their place in the fallback bucket, no longer looming large as our biggest collective worry.
I’m proud to be a small part of the team that made Chrome Frame happen, and I’m grateful to Google for having given me the chance to do something truly good for the web.