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How Google will kill Internet Explorer and save the web

Update: This open letter from the EFF to Google makes some of the same points, particularly how Google is probably the one company able to establish an open video standard for the web.

Update 2 (19/5/2010): Steps 1 and 2 in my prediction appears to have happened. Google is open-sourcing VP8 in the hope of making it (in the form of WebM) the standard for internet video. They will transcode all YouTube video to WebM. And Firefox and IE9 (in a half-assed way) have already committed to supporting it.

Update 3 (8/6/2010): Some of the best writing on this topic can be found on Diary Of An x264 Developer by Jason Garrett-Glaser (aka Dark Shikari), especially this and this. In short: he also anticipates the YouTube gambit (“Blitzkrieg”), and would welcome a truly open, patent-free video format for the web to oust Flash, but points out many existing and potential problems with WebM/VP8 that may be its undoing, and does not see H.264 going away. Wait and see, basically.

Update 4 (30/6/2010): YouTube speaks: “While HTML5’s video support enables us to bring most of the content and features of YouTube to computers and other devices that don’t support Flash Player, it does not yet meet all of our needs. Today, Adobe Flash provides the best platform for YouTube’s video distribution requirements, which is why our primary video player is built with it.” So, not soon, anyway.

I’d like to make a prediction. I’m probably not the first to make it, and I may be utterly wrong, but just in case I prove to be right, I’d like to have it on record.1

I believe Google is planning to kill off Internet Explorer, within the next two years, and I think they can succeed. By “kill off” I mean turn it from the majority browser into a niche browser (<20% for all versions combined.) I believe the strategy relies on Chrome Frame, YouTube, and HTML5 video using the VP8 format.

The game plan

Step 1. It is rumoured Google will soon open-source the VP8 video compression format by On2 Technologies, whom they bought earlier this year. They’ll do so in the hope that it would become the default video format on the web, over Theora (open but technically inferior) and H.264 (superior but patent-encumbered). If they did so, Mozilla, Webkit and Opera browsers, with their fierce competition and fast update cycles, will likely hedge their bets and quickly add support for VP8, in addition to the formats they already support.

Step 2. Google will transcode all videos on YouTube to VP8 format, and serve this as the default to capable browsers. Converting such a vast amount of video is a monumental task, but Google has the resources to do it.

Step 3. Once the release versions of all the major non-IE browsers are capable of displaying VP8 HTML5 video without a hitch2, Google will make its final move. Notices will appear on YouTube that they will soon turn off support for Flash, and serve all video as VP8 only. If you use Firefox, Safari or Chrome, you won’t notice a difference. But if you’re using Internet Explorer, not to worry: all you need to do is install a simple plugin: Chrome Frame.

Chrome Frame effectively turns Internet Explorer into Chrome. It still looks like you’re running IE, but the rendering engine has been replaced by Google’s. (Only on request, though: web authors have to explicitly ask for Chrome Frame to be used if available. The rest of the time IE remains unchanged.)

YouTube is Special

YouTube is unique on the web in that pretty much everyone uses it: it is the third most visited site after Google and Yahoo. I would wager that, within a month, some 80% of web users will have visited YouTube, and the vast majority of Internet Explorer users will have installed the plugin they need to continue getting their funny cat fix. Where else would they go? Sure, there are other video sites out there, but none truly compete with YouTube, in terms of volume of content, or audience size.

At the same time, very few people would be able to lambast Google for breaking something that harms their business or access to vital information. Very few people need YouTube, and very few of those will be unable to install the plugin or switch to a different browser.

In a matter of months, the vast majority of IE users will either have switched to a different browser, or installed Chrome Frame, effectively turning it (on demand) into Chrome. IE’s market share (if you look at the actual rendering engine) will collapse from 55% today3 to under 20% (and hopefully much lower).

This will reveal Google’s acquisitions of YouTube, On2, and their development of their own Chrome browser, merely as components in a masterpiece of long-game strategy. Without every one of these components, each monumental and expensive in themselves, the strategy couldn’t succeed. Nobody but Google could’ve done it.

The result

And what a future this will win for the web. Look at this demonstration of the capabilities of HTML5 and CSS3, and imagine a world in which every new website can use every part of it. This could be seen as a massive upgrade for the internet. Imagine not needing to support outdated versions of IE anymore. Only if you had to support a significant customer base locked in by IT policy, a rapidly-dwindling segment, would you still need to support IE.

How will this affect other players? It will be a mortal blow against Adobe, with Flash rapidly losing its hold over internet video over the ensuing months. This would suit Apple fine, who are already doing their best to keep Flash off Apple hardware. (They’re currently putting their weight behind H.264, but that’s simply the best option at the moment.) The Flash plugin will likely remain ubiquitous for a while still, but will be increasingly marginalised, and find its place usurped by JavaScript, Canvas and SVG as support for these open technologies become near-universal.

Microsoft can only respond by getting IE users to upgrade to the latest versions as quickly as possible, and add support for VP8 video. This will suit Google and the web just fine, since IE9 promises to be on par with the competition in its support for modern web technologies. But they will no longer be able to act with the hubris of majority market share, and will be forced into a position of playing catch-up to faster-evolving browsers.

For Google, of course, this is essential for its vision of the browser as operating system4.

  1. I deliberately did not do a web search to check for other articles making the same prediction, as I wanted to think it through for myself.
  2. Here’s a possible weak point in my argument: Unlike H.264, VP8 currently does not benefit from hardware acceleration (especially important on mobile platforms.) If this proves to be a major factor, the timeframe may need to be longer to allow for the natural cycle of hardware upgrades. (Fortunately this is more rapid for mobile devices.)
  4. The front-end of the Internet operating system, that is.