When Google controls the internet…

I’m not a google fanboy (although I do use a lot of gmail and picasa some) – I’m also more than a bit wary about the amount of info they control and manage about me and others. That said, I was reading up on SPDY this morning, and a curious thought struck me.

For those of you old enough to remember the late 90s and the ‘browser wars’, IE was becoming the dominant browser. I remember hearing a rumor that IE was given preferential treatment with IIS servers – meaning that if you used IE against an IIS server, you’d have a faster experience, and that connections from Netscape and others were intentionally throttled down. Again, just a rumor, and not one I could ever confirm. Even if it was *true*, in hindsight, my guess is that it probably wouldn’t have been intentional. Or, to whatever extent it was intentional, it would be from lack of testing (or caring about testing) against non IE browsers. That may be wishful rose-colored thinking on my part, but it’s all in the past now.

Google’s Chrome has been on an upswing the past year or so. It became my default browser for about a year, although I’m using Firefox 4 more often these days. Google’s been experimenting with SPDY – a new protocol intended to augment HTTP. That’s the benign pronouncement – it wouldn’t surprise me if they really would like it to supplant HTTP altogether, but I suspect that won’t ever happen 100%. The SPDY spec has a number of interesting improvements -

  • X-header ‘hints’ to tell the client other related resources (to avoid having to parse the entire document first)
  • HTTP Header compression – I think I tweeted this some time ago, but this thought hit me last year. Many HTTP header calls are moderately big, and many pages have dozens or hundreds of these. SPDY reduces HTTP headers by ~80%, which can make for a marked improvement on many larger pages.
  • Request prioritization – allows the client to indicate which resources should be loaded first

and many more.  (See the link above for more info).

The interesting thing to me was the difference between when MS owned the client and server experience (for sites that mattered to me) and now that Google does (for sites that matter to me).  MS seemed to go for more lock-in – pushing ActiveX as a browser technology, pushing IIS as the server of choice, etc.  Google, on the other hand, investigates, tests, and promotes new technology to reduce load times and HTTP overhead for the whole internet.

Granted, right now, the only company using SPDY is Google, but they’ve published their protocol and research, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some mainstream webservers support SPDY in the next year or so.  If Firefox and/or Safari also support SPDY, we’ll see some radical speed changes which will benefit the entire internet in the form of faster sites.  In MS’ favor, I will point out that the beginnings of what became AJAX originated in IE5, and AJAX has been a game changer for the web industry certainly.  It’s just a bit sad that it seemed to happen in spite of MS rather than them proactively promoting an IE tech as a cross-platform solution.

One wonders if MS would even be able to pull off something like SPDY today.  10 years ago they *could* have, but didn’t seem to have the foresight or inclination to do so.


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