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Google’s Chrome Arrives

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On Monday, September 1, 2008, word leaked out, as word often does on the Internet, that Google had developed a browser. Initially this seems to be unremarkable; there's been speculation for years that Google might do something like this, and it doesn't take a genius to work out that they'd at least have a prototype around somewhere.

The remarkable elements are threefold. First is the way the information was presented: a comic book. This is surely the first time a product has been announced in such a way, and definitely the first time it's been used to launch software. Google claim to have inadvertently sent out this comic a day early, but – and this marks the second remarkable element – the Internet reaction to its appearance online was stellar. The links to related articles on Techmeme grew at an amazing rate. Twitter exploded with comments, and Google's own top search engine term was an investigation into the whereabouts of this new browser's download URL.

Remarkable thing number three: it would be available tomorrow. This wasn't just some confirmation that Google had considered their own browser, or that they had something in development for a near future release, this was an honest to God, working Google browser which would be in the hands of the general public – well, anyone running Windows at least – in a few hours. Chrome, as it was to be known, was coming.

There hasn't been an Internet phenomenon like this for a long time; the anticipation for Google's first shot at the crowded browser market was almost comparable to the hype that Apple's reality distortion machine builds up prior to a new product announcement. After hours of mounting excitement and speculation, during a streamed Google press conference, Chrome's download link went live.

The reaction has been interesting to watch. Walt Mossberg seems to have concluded that IE8 offers a better web browsing experience at this stage. Web developers have bemoaned the fact that they now have yet another browser within which to test their work. Mac users have bemoaned the fact that they can't use the browser yet. Twitter's search facility always makes for an interesting barometer at times like this, and the opinion there seems to be largely positive. In fact, there are a large number of Twitter users who seem hugely impressed with Chrome's speed and stability.

My first few hours with the browser have mirrored that opinion. Chrome has a minimalist aesthetic that's quite pleasing to the eye. Browser tabs are positioned above everything else, in total contrast to Firefox and IE's user interface, and when you start using the application you realise why; they can be snapped off from the main browser into their own, totally independent window. The address bar (dubbed Omnibar by Google's team, thanks to its combined search and address entry capabilities) sits beneath the tab window, as do navigation buttons. Each tab is, essentially, its own application; this is one of Chrome's biggest strengths. If one rogue web site tries to crash your browser, Chrome will simply shrug and disown the tab in question.

Chrome's other strength is its speed. While online tests by certain users have claimed it's not as rapid as Firefox or IE in its rendering, I've not noticed any dramatic decrease on less interactive sites. In fact, I think scrolling around a page feels quicker using Chrome than Firefox 3, but that could be purely imagination. One area where Chrome definitely outperforms its rivals is on pages with lots of Javascript. Gmail, Google Calendar, Google's application suite, Flickr, and notably MobileMe all run blazingly quickly. Chrome should be investigated by anyone who stores their life in Google's particular cloud, and it offers by far the best Me.com experience on a Windows system.

There's been much discussion in the last few days around whether Google are trying to crush Microsoft, how Mozilla will feel about one of their largest financial supporters creating a competing product, and why exactly Google feel the need to introduce yet another browser. I would argue that this impressive Javascript performance, specifically Chrome's new "V8" engine, is precisely the point of Google's release. As more and more of their online offerings become more and more demanding, they're going to need a browser that's able to cope with the sophisticated web development techniques their developers are using. Microsoft, and arguably Mozilla, have no real need to enhance this element of their browsers. Interestingly Apple, with their new Me.com-based suite, stand to benefit the most from the technologies presented in Chrome – technologies that Google are encouraging other developers to adopt. Given that WebKit can be found at the heart of both browsers, I'm sure Apple will be doing some borrowing in the very near future.

There are some areas in which Chrome is currently lacking. Bookmark management is essentially non-existent, but you could argue that User 2.0 is much more at home with services like delicious.com than using their browser's bookmarking engine. Currently there's no browser extension support, and there's no progress bar to indicate how long a page is going to take to load. This last point may be a design decision on Google's part: a watched pot never boils, and if you're sitting watching a slowly moving progress bar your page feels like it's taking longer to load. There's enough visual indication that the browser is doing something so maybe they deemed a progress bar unnecessary.

I suspect there are still secrets locked away inside Chrome. Even if not in this first beta release, there will almost certainly be changes in future versions. Google are famous for keeping their products in beta for a very, very long time, so they'll be in no rush to finalise Chrome. Given the product's open source nature, there may well be enhancements and revelations to come in the next few days. One important by-product of making the browser open source is the question of trust: many writers have voiced their suspicions that Google will quietly catalogue their browsing habits and store them away for future use. With an open source product, this is virtually impossible to achieve without massive Internet scandal.

There are so many things that I like about Chrome that I'm going to try running it as my default browser. I use Gmail a lot, and the enhanced speed, coupled with Chrome's ability to run a web application in its own, minimalist browser window in the style of a desktop app (complete with start menu icon) makes Google's new browser very appealing to me. I haven't even mentioned the "smart" homepage that offers icons for your eight most visited sites, the slick download management (complete with search), or the fact that the Omnibar seems to be a lot more intuitive than other browser's equivalents.

Google have produced a very impressive browser. Particularly when considering that this is their first attempt, and their first release. Key to the browser's future will be good plugin support, a clean track record with regard to security (the browser has been built to strongly guard against penetration), and some tidying up of loose ends. Only time will tell how many people actually download and install Chrome, and it will be fascinating to see how Google market the browser given their somewhat unique position on the Internet.

Congratulations to Google's team on their success so far, and I look forward to enjoying the benefits of Chrome's future development.

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  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Bookmark management is essentially non-existent

    Not if you can use the Google toolbar in Chrome. That Bookmark management follows your Google account in any browser.

  • I downloaded Chrome last night, too, but I didn’t notice everything you did… like the bookmarks. I do like the speed, though.

  • hmhmhm