Google as the new Sun: Case in point, Native Client

The search engine vendor is a fountain of new technology, though as in the case of Native Client, its ambitions are limited

With the demise of Sun Microsystems -- the late, lamented high-tech pioneer responsible for groundbreaking technologies like Java and Network File System -- it's looking more like Google has assumed the mantle of chief risk-taker and eye-opener in the software industry. Evidence of this can be seen with projects like the Dart programming language, Google Web Toolkit, and Native Client, which was the subject of a recent evening gathering at Google's Silicon Valley headquarters.

Native Client is for running native compiled code in the browser. It features a sandbox containing native code and Pepper interfaces, letting sandboxed code interact with the browser. The technology, though, remains of limited reach, and its level of security raises eyebrows.

At the event, Google brought onstage a few users of Native Client -- mostly gaming vendors -- to endorse the technology, which runs inside the Chrome browser. Through Native Client, "application developers can use native code safely in Chrome across all popular desktop operating systems, and they have access to a rich and growing set of resources from the browser," says Brad Chen, a Google tech lead. Native Client uses native machine instructions, and Google recognizes that historically has been a problem in terms of security. Google's sandbox approach prevents direct access to the native OS, thus boosting security, Chen says.

One of the companies championing Native Client, Heartwood, is using it for 3D interactive learning and lead-generation applications. Native Client helps customers avoid cumbersome plug-ins, says Heartwood vice president Neil Wadhawan: "We were always Web-enabled, but now we don't need our customers to download a plug-in."

Google wants Native Client to be equal to JavaScript while enabling developers to instead use languages like C, C++, and, thanks to the Mono runtime, C# and other .Net languages to build with Native Client. But Native Client is limited to the Chrome browser and is geared to desktop for the foreseeable future. Google is eager to get Native Client supported on other browsers, Chen says: "It's open source, and [other browser vendors] can use it anytime they want to."

But support for Native Client on such mobile platforms as Google's Android or Apple's iOS is not on the drawing board anytime soon. "We're really focused on the Web right now; that means the places where Chrome runs," Chen says. In essence, Native Client is for Chrome on PCs and laptops for the time being.

Although Native Client is limited in its reach, it does present an interesting technology for Web applications, letting developers move outside the JavaScript realm. But how far Native Client goes in terms of industry acceptance remains to be seen. That acceptance could be in the hands of rivals like Microsoft, Firefox, and Apple, which would have to support Native Client if it were to become some sort of industry standard. Apple and Microsoft have been silent and Mozilla's response has been essentially "hell, no!"

Hmm, Sun faced that same issue of needing competitors' support -- and enjoyed mixed success getting it.

Native Client, though, again proves that Google is an interesting company to watch -- not bad for a company that cut its teeth as a mere search engine vendor.

This story, "Google as the new Sun: Case in point, Native Client," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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