North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes: Google Chrome

A long time ago, back when Netscape and Microsoft were brawling on the Mt. Olympus of the Web’s early years, Web-browsing was confined to the relatively simple acts of searching and finding information “information that was then displayed on simple pages in simple HTML. As the Web matured, the Web-browsing experience began to expand into the realms of video-watching, game-playing, text-chatting and, most notably, document-creating. The Internet, in a sense, erupted from the confines of the browser and into the realm of the operating system. Web pages became Web applications, a transition that early browsers hardly anticipated. Services like Google’s Google Docs, for instance, possess enough features to completely replace Microsoft’s own Word “the industry standard.

This evolution is the main basis for the creation of Chrome, Google’s very own internally developed Web-browser and the latest addition to Google’s suite of perpetually beta product offerings. Chrome enters the already-crowded Web-browser market currently dominated by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (which possesses approximately 70 percent of the market) and the steadily growing Mozilla Firefox, which commands a respectable 19 percent. But, in spite of this certainly formidable competition “or perhaps because of it “Chrome does indeed differentiate itself from the likes of Firefox and IE, though the question of whether these differences actually warrant a switch is still up in the air.

One of the main features of Chrome lies in the way it handles tabs. As people continue to put their documents online, browser stability becomes more and more essential. Recognizing this, Google designed Chrome to be multi-threaded, which likely means nothing to you at first. Basically, it boils down to this: Google sought to mimic the process handling of operating systems and programmed those features into Chrome. In other words, when one of multiple tabs decides to lose its mind and ravage a computer’s CPU “it doesn’t take the entire browser (your unfinished Facebook message and all) with it. In Chrome, that errant tab instead does the process equivalent to filling a garage with car exhaust: the tab dies a quiet death, no other tabs are affected and the browser itself remains intact. Separate tabs, separate processes.

The significance of a number of Chrome’s other features varies depending on whether you concern yourself with things like rendering engines and hidden class transitions. I won’t venture to explain those gems “and only partially because I don’t fully understand them”but ask your programming friends what they think of Chrome’s utilization of incremental garbage collection, and you’ll certainly need more than a few towels to soak up all the resulting excitement-induced saliva.

Improving the user experience is the primary goal of any software developer, and Google likewise kept that in the forefront of their development of Chrome. Chrome features what its developers call the “omnibox,” a coinage that has been viewed as something of a subtle stab at Firefox 3’s own affectionately named “Awesome Bar.” As its name might lead some to believe, the omnibox doesn’t do it all, but it certainly does a lot. It is essentially the result of the Google search page being eagerly injected into a normal URL bar. After an input is typed into it, it offers Google-fueled suggestions on useful and popular pages”both those visited and yet-to-be-visited. It also allows users to search Web sites directly from it. Thus, typing Wikipedia.com, for instance, followed by a press of the tab key and the desired search item, will retrieve the desired page.

Chrome’s take on the homepage is likewise notable. Lamenting the existence of blank homepages, Google designed “the new tab page” which, while nifty, does a number of potentially horrifying things. For one, the new tab page displays, quite prominently, your nine most visited pages, one of which, for most Web users, is certainly going to be Google.com. Of course, for those attracted to some of the more lewd (and surely shameful!) Internet destinations, the new tab feature is sure to be avoided with Grandma looking over your shoulder. For that reason, the Chrome developers also included “Incognito,” a feature that bears a striking resemblance to Internet Explorer 8’s own InPrivate, known by many as “porn mode.” With Incognito, browsing history isn’t saved”surely so kind and thoughtful boyfriends can secretly buy gifts for their lucky girlfriends. Surely.

But are any of these features enough to cause a mass conversion of Firefox and Internet Explorer users to Chrome? As of right now, no, not really. Chrome, at this point, feels like a stripped-down version of Firefox, and many of the features that it does possess can easily be, or already have been emulated within Firefox. This is not to say that Chrome will go the way of Cuil as the browser does bring a lot to the metaphorical browser table”speed and simplicity, for instance. But, being as it is still in beta, and was released a little over a week ago, its full potential has yet to be realized. Likely in a few months, when developers begin offering their own plug-ins and Google starts fleshing out some of Chrome’s bare bones features, we will see some of Chrome’s potential brought to the fore. Until then, however, it seems as if the little browser with big ideas will just have to settle for its one-percent share of the browser market”Microsoft, be damned.

(Originally published 10 September 2008 in The Amherst Student)

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