Rey Bango and had a little discussion this morning on Twitter about a JScript update Microsoft recently released to fix a native JSON feature in Internet Explorer 8. I made the comment that it's really only a useful, if Microsoft really automatically pushes the update to users (which I meant via Windows Update—which Rey confirmed to me that they are indeed.) Rey and I then had an ongoing dialog via IM about browser updates in general.
For those of you who aren't aware, Google Chrome uses background updating to automatically update the browser when updates are available. The updating happens seamlessly in the background—there's no visual indication that updating, it happens in the background when you're using your PC.
When I first discovered that Chrome does this (shortly after installing the initial beta,) I was really irritated. I was really against the idea of software upgrading itself without my interaction. I don't like my PC doing things without my permission.
However, after using the beta and having it automatically update itself, I realized it worked pretty well for beta software—which is often buggy. Then I really started thinking about the whole idea of background updating. I started thinking about how much easier my job as a web developer would be, if I wasn't always fighting the battle of supporting old browsers (specifically IE6/7.)
Could you imagine if IE had implemented this concept in Internet Explorer back in 1998? We'd no longer have sites full of HTML, JS and CSS hacks targeted specifically at fixing IE6 or IE7 issues. That would certainly make my job easier.
There are certainly issues with background updating. Browsers that have a plug-in/add-on framework certainly risk breaking the browser with automatic updates—which is definitely an issue. In order to do background updating, you've got to make sure that it doesn't change the user's browsing experience. While Google's has enhanced certain features of Chrome, they haven't implemented any drastic changes to the user's experience—which is important.
While in general, I'm not a fan of automatic updates, in my findings the average web user doesn't really care what their browser is doing—as long as it doesn't change how they use their browser. The average user doesn't proactively look to upgrade their PC—that's one reason so many PCs get infected with viruses/trojans/spyware/etc.
I consider my parents to be a pretty good representation of the normal web user and I just can't get them to keep their PCs up-to-date. No matter how many times I tell them to stay up-to-date on Windows Updates, the response I always hear is "I'm afraid I'm going to break my PC!" Too many users get tricked into clicking and installing stuff from the Internet, because it looks like a PC update and they become afraid of updating.
Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of browsers (by default) keeping themselves up-to-date automatically. While there will be vocal crowd against the concept, as long as updates aren't making drastic changes to the user's experience, the general user just doesn't care.
There's definite risk in this approach, because vendors have to be very careful that they're not breaking the user's browser or their experience—that will only frustrate users. However, I'm definitely curious to see if Google is successful in with their current strategy of automatically updating Chrome. I really haven't heard a very vocal outcry against it and Chrome's seems to be picking up popularity, so we'll see how it all plays out.
I have definitely become a fan of the idea that maybe some day in the future I won't have to keep implementing various hacks just because web users don't/won't/can't upgrade their browser. I just think how wonderful the web might be if IE6 was no longer around.