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Google the Browser Builder: Chrome
by
Posted On September 11, 2008


Within the computing realm, Google seems to be everywhere these days. Its latest effort, Google Chrome, is a brand new web browser. Competing with the market leader, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), along with Mozilla Firefox, Apple’s Safari, and other lesser-used browsers, Google’s entry instantly generated interest among technically savvy browser users.

Why build a new browser? As Google explains, "We realized that the web had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive applications and that we needed to completely rethink the browser. What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for web pages and applications …" (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/09/fresh-take-on-browser.html).

Chrome is designed to be fast, especially to support the Web 2.0 advanced, JavaScript-based applications such as Google Docs, Gmail, and Google Reader. Like other modern browsers, Chrome supports tabs, has bookmarks, and, at first glance, has many familiar features. When installing Chrome, it gives an option to import existing settings from Firefox or IE so that bookmarks, passwords, and homepage settings can make the transition easily.

The underlying technology is shared by other browsers. Google built Chrome using WebKit as its technical underpinnings. A newer version of WebKit is used for Apple’s Safari browser and the iPhone browser. Google also notes that some components come from Mozilla Firefox.

Chrome actually has very little chrome. In software design, the term "chrome" often refers to the graphics and menu choices along the border of an application. And this is exactly what Chrome has very little of. Instead, it boasts a minimalist design, which increases the page-viewing space of the browser. Like Microsoft Office 2007, there is no menu bar near the top with the previously common File, Edit, View, Tools, Help, and other command choices. There is not even a question mark icon for help. Instead, Chrome’s chrome has just a few icons, and help is located under the wrench icon.

New Features and Search

Many new features are included, with several that are not immediately obvious. One that stands out at first look is that Chrome has combined the address box with the search box. Instead of having a search box (like IE, Safari, and Firefox do) that can have multiple search engines available as drop-down choices, Chrome puts the search shortcut within the URL box, or "Omnibox," as Google dubs it.

For searching, the default Chrome search engine is … (drum roll please) … Google. However, as Danny Sullivan notes, Google does not "stack the deck in its own favor" (www.searchengineland.com/080902-172031.php). Instead, Chrome will import a different default search engine if that is what someone has been using. And Chrome lets users change the default search engine via the wrench icon/Options/Basics/Default Search.

The loss of the search box can make switching between search engines more difficult. However, the Omnibox has other search functions built-in. As Google engineer Matt Cutts writes in his "Answers to Common Google Chrome Objections" blog post, "But wait! It gets even easier to search on other engines. In the Omnibox/address bar, you can start typing ‘live.com’ or ‘yahoo.com’ until the Omnibox offers live.com or yahoo.com as an autocomplete option … [then] just hit the Tab key and you will be offered to search for a query on live.com" (www.mattcutts.com/blog/common-google-chrome-objections). While this search feature is included, it is far from intuitive.

Users can still set a homepage, but by default, Chrome brings up a New Tab page that includes screen shots of "most visited" pages, recent bookmarks, and a Searches area. Within the Searches section is a search box for searching within the search history and boxes for three recently used search engines.

Limitations

Google Chrome is in beta and shows as version 0.2. At launch, it was only available for Windows Vista or Windows XP Service Pack 2 or above. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has been quoted as saying that "it’s embarrassing" that no Mac version is available, and he says "I hope it’ll be a matter of months" (www.valleywag.com/5044780/google-founder-on-no-chrome-for-macs-its-embarrassing). A Linux version is also in the works, and users can sign up on the download page to hear when these versions are available.

The next few months are likely to see many bug reports—and hopefully fixes. As Google’s announcement blog post puts it, "At Google, we have a saying: ‘launch early and iterate.’" So they are certainly expecting to have many future iterations of the browser. Some users have reported problems with printing, YouTube, and various other websites. Common complaints are that Chrome has, as of yet, no support for extensions or for live RSS feeds. Users of popular Firefox extensions like AdBlock may be in for a surprise when they start using Chrome and are inundated with ads that they usually avoid seeing.

Security

One of the biggest complaints and concerns right at launch was about the End User License Agreement (EULA) that every user must click on the "agree to" button to even be able to install Chrome. Apparently, Google reused language from its other EULAs and users complained that "The EULA’s indication that Google could republish anything even ‘displayed’ in the browser sounded a tiny bit evil …" (www.arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080903-google-on-chrome-eula-controversy-our-bad-well-change-it.html). Fortunately, Google quickly updated the EULA language to calm such concerns.

In terms of general browser security, Chrome was quickly found to be vulnerable to a carpet-bombing flaw that existed in the underlying WebKit rendering engine (www.blogs.zdnet.com/security/?p=1843). Again, this was quickly fixed.

Other Browsers

So what about the competition? And in particular, what about the free Mozilla Firefox that Google has so strongly supported for the past several years? Firefox recently launched version 3, and a new IE 8 is in beta and has already received some rave reviews. Some see Google’s move as yet another attempt to hurt Microsoft. However, as Liz Gannes notes in "Why Did Google Abandon Firefox?" (http://gigaom.com/2008/09/02/why-did-google-abandon-firefox), "But the features are for early adopters and power users, so it’s Firefox’s market share that Chrome will eat up, not IE’s. And it’s Firefox’s engineers that Google took away. Maybe being open source and having a common enemy will heal up this little bout of backstabbing, but then again, maybe not."

Most early adopters appear to be tech users. One interpretation is that since Chrome is open source, like Firefox, maybe Google is just hoping that the technical advances that Chrome brings (such as better JavaScript support and processing) will be adopted by the other browsers. That way, such JavaScript-intensive Google services such as Gmail and Google Docs will perform better on all the browsers.


Greg R. Notess is the internet columnist for ONLINE and the author of Teaching Web Search Skills (www.notess.com/teaching) and SearchEngineShowdown.com.

Email Greg R. Notess
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