Any new client that decides to change the rules would have to branch the chain.
Well that's a bit extreme, don't you think? Only changes to the basic functionality of generating proof of work and subsequently hashing transactions with them cannot be touched, the protocol itself can be designed to be quite extensible, just as BitTorrent, where the clients might provide additional features if supported.
I'd really like to see some alternative clients that could then be customized with all sorts of features and run as a normal daemon just like mail and web :-)
Agree the network protocol can be changed without branching the proof of work chain. But the rules on what transactions to accept, e.g., the 50 bitcoins going to the author of each block, must stay the same or it will need to be branched. For example if a new client comes out that drops the 50 bitcoins into my account instead of the authors account will work among the new clients but existing clients will not build on top of those invalid transactions.