Last week Google released Chrome, its new standards-compliant Web browser. But what does that mean to you, the business person? Though Google offers a great comic book that explains the big changes, it is a bit jargon-heavy and, frankly, long at 32 (comic) pages.
So I offer you an introduction of Google Chrome for the layman. We will look briefly at the improvements in the user interface, performance, and technology advancements so that you can more easily decipher why Google Chrome matters to you.
The Big (Browser) Picture
The browsers of yore (if you can call 15 years ago "yore") were built on the assumption that a Web browser was your gateway to the Information Superhighway. Meaning—it was required for entry onto the big road, and any improvement to the browser was by definition an improvement to your Web experience.
Over time, more and more features were added to the browsers in an effort to help you. The problem is that these features usually ended up hurting more than helping.
- Making up their own stuff. Some sites worked in some browsers, while others did not. This is a well known issue in Web development and often the cause of many Web users' frustrations.
- Increase their "silicon footprint." Browsers have evolved into notorious memory hogs. This means a Web experience with continually worsening rush-hour traffic.
- Crashing your entire system. Browsers tend toward "memory leaks." So if you leave a browser open for a couple of hours, or worse, overnight, you usually wake up a sluggish beast that can only be slain with a computer system reboot.
You've probably heard the phrases Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 (the latter usually stated with sarcasm by many). These terms are also a neat and tidy way to think about Google Chrome.
Chrome aims to revolutionize the browser marketplace by introducing a browser that takes a back seat to your Web surfing. Chrome does the bare minimum of what a Web browser should do, but in the safest, fastest way possible. Google states that it seeks to have the Web visitor "ignore the browser."
In essence, Google is trying to do for the browser what it did for search—revolutionize. Let's first look at the changes in the browser user interface.
Google Chrome's Welcomed Changes to the User Interface
Chrome's interface is absolutely minimalist. Instead of the typical bloated browser interface, you have a few non-distracting options:
- Window tabs
- Navigation buttons (back, forward, refresh)
- URL entry field (called the One Box)
- Options and customization menu
That's it, really. You don't even have a print button (the reasoning being most Web pages offer better print-versions online. But don't worry, you can still access a print option from the Options menu).
It's a bit disconcerting when you first open up Chrome—you ask "where is all the stuff?" But then you quickly realize you can happily do without all of it.
The biggest change to the browser user interface is the introduction of placing the tabs at the very top of the browser application window. This places the attention on what matters during an online visit—the online content. These tabs can easily be selected and dragged outside the main browser window to open a new browser window. When you open a new tab, it gives you a visual history of your nine most recent visited Web pages and most used search engines and bookmarks. That's one helpful, simple start-up page.
Helpful, Non-Distracting Features
Chrome has some non-intrusive "features" you are likely to find helpful. For example, the browser adds destination suggestions as you type (a feature in Firefox 3.0). It also darkens the main URL of a Web site for improved readability.
My favorite is the downloads feature. When you download a file, the browser provides a very informative animation as to where you can access the downloaded file. Chrome even gives you an option to view your entire download history with a descriptive download history page stating when and what was downloaded.
Another feature is how one can easily and quickly create a link to your favorite Web application (like Gmail) by simply dragging and dropping the bookmark onto your desktop. This type of feature is indicative of the industry's growing awareness that the future is not in applications (or "apps") you install on your computer, but rather apps you access online.
Already, you probably notice that a lot of the applications and tools you use are online (Web mail, online banking, social networking). These type of apps, called "Webapps" will continue to proliferate. Google Chrome hopes to be the browser of choice for Webapps.
Chrome's Technological Advancements
Chrome is based on Webkit, the open source browser engine that powers Apple's Safari for Mac and PC. This is important, because Chrome's "browser base" is already solid (despite the typical memory hogging issues that plague all browsers). Interestingly, Chrome currently runs only in Windows.
Chrome further improves on Webkit, the biggest improvement being how Chrome handles memory.
Rather than having a single process ("thread") store all your browsing sessions, every Webpage is separated into its own process; that is, it's "multi-threaded." This concept isn't new—most operating systems do this to increase system stability. Yet Chrome is the first browser to accomplish this technical feat.
Chrome even has its own Task Manager similar to Window's Task Manager so you can "kill" or cancel processes that are hogging resources, just as in Windows. This is a really, really big evolution in browser development, so let's have a moment of silence to respect it.
There is also the matter of performance testing to consider. One of the problems with current browsers is that performance testing was limited to actual user (people) testing. Google added a level of automated testing by leveraging its amazing processing power infrastructure. Instead of waiting for a person to report a bug, it can run thousands of scenarios on many different popular Web sites to ensure full operability. The end result—fewer bugs upon release (and, hopefully, fewer releases).
Finally, if you're concerned about security, there are some great other features to Chrome that you will enjoy, such as Incognito mode. In this mode, your entire Web session will not appear in your browser and search history, and it leaves no traces such as cookies. Simply close your browser and your trail is erased completely. This is a great feature for public computers everywhere.
Getting Started with Google Chrome
Go to Google to download and install Chrome. Within three clicks and one minute, you will be ready to start surfing with Chrome. The default settings are to import your bookmarks from your other browsers, so if you don't want this, click on "Customize Options."
Interestingly, the default settings are not to set Chrome as the default browser. Internet Explorer could learn a lesson on that one.
Try it for a week. If you don't like it, go back to Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari. Or uninstall Chrome altogether. There is absolutely no risk.
Will Chrome eat away at Microsoft's already eroding market share? As a Web developer who has seen the rise and fall of Netscape, the monopoly of Internet Explorer, and the meteoric rise of Firefox, my hope is yes.
Because it's nice to see progress in the browser market after Internet Explorer 6's seven years of silent reign.
Welcome back innovation, we missed you.