Google Chrome: the first true Web 2.0 browser
Computerworld takes an in-depth look at Google's new browser.
Preston Gralla (Computerworld (US)) 04/09/2008 07:50:00
Google's just-released Chrome takes the same approach to browser design that Google takes to its home page -- stripped-down, fast and functional, with very few bells and whistles.
That's both the good news and the bad news about this browser. Those who like a no-frills approach to their Web experience, and who want the content of Web sites front and center, will welcome it. But those who want a more fully-featured interface with extras will prefer either Internet Explorer or Firefox.
That being said, keep in mind that this is a first beta, and Google may well introduce new features in future versions. For example, this beta does not have a true bookmarks manager, but it would be quite surprising if one didn't show up in future betas.
In fact, there's a very long list of features this browser doesn't have. There's no built-in RSS reader, as there is in Internet Explorer, or that's available as an add-on for Firefox. You won't find a good bookmarks manager, such as you'll find in both Internet Explorer and Firefox. There are no add-ons as you'll find in Firefox. Be warned -- the list of what's not there can go on for quite some time.
That was all by design, though, and it's why Google calls this browser Chrome. The frame of a browser is called its chrome, and Google set out to reduce the browser to just the "chrome." In a comic book that gives technical background about the browser, Google explains its design philosophy this way: "We don't want to interrupt anything the user is trying to do. If you can just ignore the browser, we've done a good job."
If that was the goal, Google has succeeded. Chrome has so little interface, the content area of the browser is larger than with other browsers -- it almost feels like full-screen mode. Nothing gets in the way of the content of the browser window itself. In the same way that Google puts search front and center on its home page, this browser puts content first.
Designed for consumers or enterprises?
A great deal of what makes Chrome different from other browsers is not what you see, but what you don't see. Chrome appears to be designed in great part to run AJAX and Web 2.0 applications. It's the only browser that has been built from the ground up for a world in which the browser is a front end to Web-based applications and services like those that Google provides, and like those that are used increasingly by businesses.
Also important is that Chrome comes equipped with Google Gears, which is a kind of glue that ties together Web-based applications and your own hard disk.
The effect of all this should be -- says Google -- a browser able to run Web-based applications with the same speed, interactivity, and stability as client-based applications. This means that Chrome may be aimed as much or more at Microsoft Office than it is at Internet Explorer. By providing a superior platform for running its Web-based applications, Google is giving itself a chance to supplant Office with Google Docs.
Seen in that way, the ultimate success of Chrome may be measured more by how many enterprises switch from Office to Google Docs than by how many consumers switch from Internet Explorer to Chrome.
A look at the interface
All that being said, Chrome is, above all, a browser, and nothing would make Google happier than if the entire world switched to it. So the company has given a great deal of thought into rethinking the entire browser interface.
The Chrome interface looks different than any other browser you've seen. Tabs sit above the address bar instead of beneath it. There's no menu, no title bar, and very few icons. In fact, there's not even a home page icon; look for it in vain. By default it's turned off -- to get one, you have to click the Tools icon, then choose Options --> Basics and check the box next to "Show Home button on the toolbar." Overall, it's as stripped-down a browser interface as you'll find.
To get to most browser functions and options, you use menus that drop down from two icons at the right-most portion of the browser -- a page icon and a tools icon. But even there, this browser is stripped-down. For example, the Options menu is where you often find many hidden features, buried beneath multiple tabs. In Chrome, the Options menu (found under the Tools icon) offers only three tabs, none of which includes an overload of choices. You'll mainly find basics such as whether to display the home page icon, where to store your downloads, and so on.
The Address Bar -- what Google calls the Omnibox -- is one of Chrome's nicer features. It doubles as a search bar: Type in your search terms, and it uses the search engine of your choice to do a search. When you instead type in a URL, it works much like the Address Bar in Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3, and lists suggested Web pages as you type, which it gathers from previously visited sites and your bookmarks, as well as making suggestions of its own, based on Web site popularity.
When you visit a site, the Address Bar, as with Internet Explorer 8, highlights the domain (such as www.computerworld.com), while the rest of the URL is lighter, so that it's easy for you to know at a glance on which domain you are currently, even if you're visiting a long URL.
A different type of tab
As with any modern browser, Chrome offers tabbed browsing. In some basic ways, the way it handles tabs is superior to Internet Explorer and Firefox, but in other ways, it's not as sophisticated.
The biggest break with other browsers is that each tab in Chrome is, in essence, its own browser. That's why the tabs are above the Address bar, rather than below it. You can detach any tab by dragging it away from the browser, and it becomes a separate browser window. You can combine separate browser instances into a unified one by dragging it back again, but you have to be careful to drag the tab itself back, rather than trying to drag the whole window, or it won't work.
Because each tab is in essence its own browser, if that tab crashes, it should not crash the entire browser. Microsoft makes the same claim for Internet Explorer 8. I haven't had any tabs crash on me yet in Chrome, so can't verify if this tab-crash feature works.
When you open a new tab, it opens just to the right of the tab from which you've opened it, so to a certain extent Chrome keeps related tabs together. You can drag tabs from place to place within the tab bar, and when they you do that, they slide in place in a smooth animation.
But Chrome doesn't group and color-code tabs like Internet Explorer 8 does. And it doesn't offer right-click options for handling groups of tabs -- for example, in IE8, you can close and duplicate entire tab groups. You can't do that in Chrome. However, Chrome does offer a variety of right-click options for handling tabs, such as closing all the tabs except for your current tab, and closing all tabs to the right of your current tab.
A particularly useful feature is what appears when you open a new tab. Rather than opening to a blank page or your home page, it opens to a page that lists your nine most visited Web pages with a thumbnail for each, a recent bookmark list, recently closed tabs and a search box that lets you search through the history of sites you've visited. Internet Explorer 8 offers a similar feature.
Chrome lacks some very important and basic tab-handling features that other browsers have. When you close Firefox, for example, it asks whether you want to save your tabs, so that you can reopen them all automatically the next time you launch your browser. Chrome has no such feature. Worse yet, it doesn't even ask if you really want to close your browser, so you may find yourself losing entire browsing sessions.
Chrome also doesn't have a feature that will restore previous sessions. You can restore previous tabs by opening a new tab page -- there's a "Recently closed tabs" listing below the "Recent bookmarks" listing on that page. If you've closed several tabs and you only want to reopen one of them, Chrome's way is useful -- you can go right to the tab you want. But it's not as convenient as right-clicking and choosing "Undo Close Tab," you can't re-open more than one at a time, and if you've closed your browser, the entire list goes away.
These are significant shortcomings, and one hopes that Google will add these features in future Chrome versions.
Privacy and security
Chrome has all the security features you'd expect in a modern browser, including a pop-up blocker and anti-phishing tool. As with other browsers, when you visit a site Chrome considers a phishing attack, you'll get a warning screen.
It blocks popups as well. When it does, a subtle notice appears at the bottom of your screen, telling you that a popup was blocked. If for some reason you want to see the popup, click the notice, and the popup appears.
Chrome also has what it calls Incognito mode, in which all traces of your browsing session disappear when you close that window. Cookies, temporary Internet files, browsing history, and so on go away when you close the session. You get there by pressing Ctrl-Shift-N, or choosing "New incognito window" from the Page icon's menu. This mode is the same as Internet Explorer 8's InPrivate Browsing. Think of both of them as porn mode.
Google also says that Chrome increases security in another way, by essentially running each tab in an individual sandbox. The sandbox is closed off from the rest of your PC, Google claims. It can't write to your hard drive, or read files from certain areas of your PC such as your Desktop. Google claims this will help eliminate malware infections.
Application windows: Building a browser for Web 2.0
If you need any evidence that Chrome has been built for AJAX and for applications delivered via the Web, look no further than what Google calls application windows. An application window is a special Chrome mode designed for Web-based applications such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and any other Web-based application.
Create a desktop shortcut to an application window by running the Web-based application, clicking Chrome's Page icon and choosing "Create application shortcuts..." That creates a shortcut on your Desktop, Start menu, or Quick Launch bar to the application. Double-click the icon, and the Web-based application runs in a browser window with no browser controls -- no tabs, buttons, address bar, etc. All you see is the application itself, although there is a small drop-down menu in the header that offers various browser functions such as back, forward, print, and duplicate. Right-clicking also gets you to functions such as back and forward.
In this way, you could have your desktop full of shortcuts to all of your Web-based applications -- word processing, spreadsheets, CRM, and so on. When they run, they appear to be an application running on your PC.
This feature still needs a bit of fine-tuning, because different Web-based applications work differently in it. In Gmail, for example, when you click a mail message, it opens directly inside the application window, which is how you expect it to work. But in Google Docs when you click on a document, the new document instead opens in a new browser instance, complete with the normal browser interface.
A lot of nifty extras
Buried beneath Chrome's bare-bones exterior are hidden some very nice extras, many of them for self-described nerds and techies. One of the niftier features is the Task Manager, an applet similar to Windows' Task Manager. It shows each separate process being used by Chrome, and displays memory use for each, as well as the CPU use each takes up. And it also shows which are currently accessing the Internet or network, and the current access speed.
If you want to free up RAM or CPU, click any process, click "End process" and voila, the process is gone. It's a great tool that offers sometimes surprising information. For example, it showed me that a Shockwave Flash plug-in took up 31MB of RAM, and quite a bit of my CPU, even though I wasn't watching any Flash videos or content. I used the Task Manager to shut it down and freed up both RAM and CPU usage.
There's even more to the Task Manager. Click "Stats for nerds" at the bottom of the window, and a tab opens with even more statistics. It's geek heaven.
Another hidden extra is a kind of search accelerator that lets you quickly search through many popular sites without having to visit them. Type the first letter of the site you want to visit -- such as "a" for Amazon -- into the address bar, then hit the Tab key, and you can then immediately add a search term and search that site.
For this feature to work, you'll have to have done a search on that site previously. So if you want to get it working, go to a popular site and do a search. After that, searching that site is a cinch.
In fact, the way that Chrome handles search is far more intelligent than any competing browser. When you do a search on a site, that site is immediately added to your search engine list. At any point, you can make that search engine your default, or you can do a fast search with the Tab key shortcut. And you can remove any search engines by using the Search Engines options screen.
Chrome handles downloads in a straightforward, helpful manner. Download a file, and when it completes downloading, you'll see a small icon for the download and the file name on the bottom left of the screen -- what Google calls a Download Bar. Click a down arrow, and you can open the file, and open the folder containing the file.
You can also go to your own personal downloads page that lists every one of your downloads, including details such as the location where it was downloaded from, the file name, and date you downloaded it. This page also functions as a download manager. While a download is in progress, you can go to the page, and pause and resume downloads.
There is one drawback to downloading in Chrome, though: It doesn't appear to integrate with your virus-scanner, as does Firefox.
Spend enough time with Chrome, and you'll find even more extras. For example, click a portion of a Web page, select Inspect Element, and you'll launch a window that shows you the HTML coding for that element, as well as the resources the page element uses.
Keep in mind that this is a beta and clearly has some bugs. Ironically, on one page I visited, it was unable to display an embedded Google Map, while Firefox had no problem displaying the map.
The bottom line
Although Chrome is a beta, it feels quite stable; after spending many hours with it and browsing to numerous sites, it didn't crash once. So you can download it without much worry about its stability.
Enterprise IT departments would do well to download Chrome now, particularly if they run or plan to run any Web-based applications. Chrome may well become a primary platform for running these applications, and it would be worthwhile to begin testing now.
Even consumers should consider downloading the browser now, because it represents a new way of browsing the Web. Chrome may be off-putting at first to some because of its bare-bones interface. But give yourself time with it. Gradually, the simplicity grows on you, and you may begin to find yourself using some of its niftier, less-obvious features, such as the search shortcuts.
That being said, the browser still has some significant shortcomings. It needs a true bookmarks manager, and it should offer a right-click option to restore closed tabs. Expect the next iteration of the browser to be more fully featured; don't be surprised, for example, to see a true bookmarks manager.
So try out this beta today, and get set for what will come tomorrow.
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