/ log / 2nd Sep, 2008 /

Early Reflections on Google Chrome

Google Chrome screenshots

The world is abuzz with the imminent release of Google Chrome today. The screenshots on CNet were apparently from the new site that was live for a short time. The news slipped out (or leaked) when, according to the Google blog, they “hit ‘send’ a bit early” and released the Google Chrome comic strip prematurely.

The comic is a great piece of work by Scott McCloud. It’s a gold-mine of interesting propaganda, and I’d love to link to some of my favourite sections but there’s a critical failing: none of the pages have a permalink! Some kind soul has taken the time to republish the strip so they can be linked although the site was slowing down already when I last visited.

Does the world need another browser? Do we need another browser to test our work on? Those seem to be the questions I hear first. However, Chrome is built on WebKit, the open source engine that also powers Safari. Safari is also my browser of choice right now — WebKit passes the Acid 3 test and Safari has the best font rendering of any browser I’ve tried — so that gives me hope. Also, Chrome will be open source, and with a few new ideas may push browser science along a little bit in a good direction, especially around security, performance and the UI.

When I heard the name, it reminded me of the DHTML tricks we used to use way back to remove the chrome from the browser window — effectively stripping it of everything that wasn’t content. Google has said:

“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.”

I do a pretty good job of ignoring the browser already. However, there are problems we’ve all been working around for a long time that Chrome wants to solve. Most of the advances have a visual metaphor in their approach to tabs. Here are some of the things that caught my eye:

The tab is king

Tabs will be at the top of the browser window as they are in Opera, making utilities like the address bar part of an individual tab. It makes sense to me: Often I find, when talking to less technical people and trying to get them to go to a URL, they’re so used to ignoring the address bar that I have to help them find it before they can start typing. Google don’t have a URL box though, they have an “omnibox” that does everything from remembering visited URLs to giving search suggestions and allowing us to do free text history searches. It also does autocompletion. The comic strip explicitly mentions getting this right but, just in case it doesn’t, I hope autocomplete can be toggled off.

In Chrome, the browser controls and URL box are explicitly associated with that unique tab. Everything associated with the site open in the tab is contained within it so it can be moved or detached completely from the window.

However, people often ignore the page title, too. In the past, this has led to all sorts of wacky, useless and inaccessible page titles being used by developers to stuff keywords or just have fun. I would of liked to have seen the page title better associated with the viewport, and visible in full, not just as part of the tab label.

Oi, JavaScript, stop!

How many times does an errant bit of JavaScript slow down the browser to a crawl and sometimes even crash the whole caboodle? Too many times. Chrome has a whole new JavaScript virtual machine dubbed V8. It also claims a multi-threading approach that sandboxes each individual tab so it won’t affect other open tabs, which allows us to close it and kill the process if it’s getting out of hand. They’re also giving us a task manager to enable us to see which tabs or plugins are causing problems by seeing the processing running and how much memory they’re using. Sounds good to me.

Confined pop-ups

Chrome will associate pop-ups with each individual tab, and confine them within that tab unless people drag them out to become a new window; an enhancement to just blocking all pop-ups altogether when some are used for legitimate purposes.

Default tab page

When a new tab is opened, Chrome will open a tab page with nine of your most visited pages, search history, recently closed and bookmarks. It sounds like an evolved version of Opera’s Speed Dial (Flash demo), that automatically populates the holding page by default.

Site-specific Chrome

Taking a lead from apps I find incredibly useful like Fluid, Chrome will allow site-sepcific browsing to access sites like Google Mail in a streamlined window. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that for any URL, and create icons in much the same way I can with Fluid now.

Security

Chrome would seem to take sand boxing to its natural conclusion, isolating individual sites from any other open tab, and not allowing access to anything without user permission. I’ll be interested to see what the web app security experts say about this, especially in relation to XSS and CSRF attacks. Chrome will also continually download blacklists for phishing and malware sites and warn users when they visit them. Those lists will also be open source.

Typography?

I can’t talk about a new browser without mentioning typography. The WebKit rendering engine already gives Chrome an advantage to build on for web type. All I want to say is that I hope they take a lead from the great work being done with things like @font-face support, and keep a beady eye on the most important thing a browser has to do: help us read. Hopefully, nothing in Chrome will limit the fine work the WebKit team are doing to make hinting, anti-aliasing, grid-fitting and hyphenation as good as they can be. Chrome will be released for Windows first. I’m looking forward to see how it reads, but how it integrated with OS X’s native text rendering will also be very interesting.

One thing is…

Google Chrome has already changed the browser landscape and it’s not released yet. We’ll see if all the web application savvy at Google Inc. emerges in the browser — I’m looking forward to it. After all, if we can’t just have one very good browser to design and develop for (oh, what luxury that would be), we may as well have another using WebKit — a rendering engine that’s committed to standards support, is open source, and doing a fine job already.

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14 Comments

  1. 1. By Andrea Gandino on 2nd Sep ’08 at 06:12am

    I like the idea of having separate tabs and address bars right at the top of the window, even if I wonder how it will fit in the Mac OS X desktop environment.

    The thing that makes it interesting it’s also the use of Webkit as the rendering engine: it’s much more solid than Gecko (not to mention the typographic rendering, which is sublime); in the end, I think that the main reason to choose Gecko over Webkit is not the engine itself, but the extensions that Gecko browsers such as Firefox provide (ie. I couldn’t live without Firebug.)

    There’s also the fact that Chrome will end up in Android, I think, which is another testing environment we’ll have to take care of soon.

    I’m looking forward to Chrome, even if I doubt I’ll use it on a regular basis as my browser of choice; gonna try it as soon as the Mac version will be released.

  2. 2. By Jon Gibbins on 2nd Sep ’08 at 07:14am

    Great overview, Jon. Thanks. I’ve not taken a lot of time to look at what Chrome has to offer, so this is really useful.

    You make some interesting observations about interface decisions and how they affect user perception. It sounds like Chrome uses an Apple Spaces/Linux Desktops type of approach to the Web, which sounds interesting.

    That’s a nice point about page titles being more prominent. It would be good to see them given more considered attention than is the current tendency. Not sure Chrome will help the situation much, but it’s a nice thought.

    Improved control over JavaScript processes has been on my wish list for Firefox for a long time. The number of times a buggy bit of JavaScript has crashed the window I’m in. Grr… Sometimes I can move all the well-behaved tabs out into a new window and then close the problem tab, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop a single tab from causing a problem. Obviously, most users won’t know what the heck JavaScript is, so if Chrome can transparently deal with such problem tabs/pages independently of other tabs, that’s a great feature.

    While Chrome certainly sounds interesting, I do wonder about how much effect it can have on the browser landscape. Anything at this stage is speculation, so I guess we can only wait and see.

  3. 3. By Evan Meagher on 2nd Sep ’08 at 14:31pm

    Good overview. I’ll be linking friends and colleagues to this when they don’t have the patience for all 38 pages of the comic.

    I’m really excited about Chrome too. Hopefully the Linux client will be released sometime soon so I can try living with it for a bit.

  4. 4. By David Gerard on 2nd Sep ’08 at 17:19pm

    "We are so, so happy with Google Chrome," mumbled Mozilla CEO John Lilly through gritted teeth. "That most of our income is from Google has no bearing on this statement." – http://notnews.today.com/?p=57

  5. 5. By Ben R on 3rd Sep ’08 at 00:24am

    I see people are already debating (well, opining) the reason that Chrome will be bad. The fact that it’s based on Webkit knocks a couple of the arguments out of the debate, but one does wonder about the privacy implications of a Google browser. Still, it won’t stop me from trying it when released for the Mac — though I don’t see how it can top the minimalist feeling of Safari.

  6. 6. By media kingdom on 3rd Sep ’08 at 10:01am

    I’m finding Chrome’s speed to be inconsistent; it seems to alternate between going lightning fast and then hanging for no apparent reason…

  7. 7. By Piotr on 3rd Sep ’08 at 15:03pm

    Great write-up Jon. I haven’t had enough time to try Chrome out by myself so I found the article very useful.

    I also liked the Ben R’s comment on the possible “privacy implications” of Chrome. Don’t know wether you’ve noticed the incident with the license agreement (there is an article about it on CNet. I’d feel uncomfortable using a Google’s browsers for that reason and I believe I’m not alone here.

    Safari has been my browser of choice for the past two years now and I can hardly see myself switching to Chrome at any point for any reason.

  8. 8. By John Richards on 3rd Sep ’08 at 22:49pm

    I like how fast the Browser is.

    I want speed, not bloated software looks pretty and wants to control everything in my computing life.

    Microsoft likes to get their grimly little hands in everything.

  9. 9. By Ben R on 4th Sep ’08 at 04:55am

    After using the browser for a short time, I can see that it has both good aspects and not so good implementation. However related to my previous concerns on the privacy aspect, I’ve just learned that Picasa online now recognises faces and suggests names! Learning this, I’m not so sure I would trust Google not to collect information I’d rather they didn’t have.

  10. 10. By Leon P on 7th Sep ’08 at 00:14am

    I think I’m 1 of 5 or 6 people who uses Safari on a semi-regular basis on Windows, simply because it renders text so pleasantly. However, my main browser is Firefox because of a few must-have extensions (Ad Blocker, Web Developer, Firebug and Stylish). So it’ll be interesting to see if Chrome (a name I can’t stand, by the way) has support for extensions.

  11. 11. By James on 8th Sep ’08 at 03:22am

    @All those who are worried about Google collecting your information.

    The fact is that Google already knows everything about you so what harm can it really do if it knows a little bit more. There have been recent concerns over the EULA agreement (now fixed) of Chrome and various security issues (most of which will be fixed by next release) – But we’re all forgetting one thing… It’s Google.

    Google is probably more powerful than the pope – so what if they have your information. You think, out of the millions of people that use Google services, they’re going to specifically target you and use *your* information for evil deeds.

    Most of the comments I’ve read on various blogs seem like they’ve been written by 80-year-olds. Let me tell you something about the future – in the future large corporations will govern the way we dress, think, talk, eat and live. heck, it’s already happening! Why are you getting all fussy about Google’s new release – it’s nothing new – Like I said Google already knows everything about you so just get on with your google-saturated life and don’t make a fuss!

  12. 12. By Kevin on 10th Sep ’08 at 01:04am

    From what i’ve seen it looks ok – ive not ad chance to use it fully as im waiting on the mac version. One thing that puzzles me is the 'incognito mode' come on theres only one real reason you wouldnt want the browser to record your history?

    Just a thought.

    Regards.

  13. 13. By Anurag Sharma on 5th Oct ’08 at 12:15pm

    I had a very bad experience with Chrome. It crashed on the second day of operation. I was not able to click on anything on the page of any tab. I had to ultimately close it. I reopened it and the same problem happened. I then had to end process it and then restarted to work fine. After few days it took like 2-3 minutes to open a page. When I type in a URL it will keep saying "resolving host" and will start opening the page only after 2-3 minutes. I tried reinstalling the browser but still the same problem. My Firefox though works fine eliminating the suspicion of any problem with my internet.

    I am a little disappointed though I really wish it worked fine. I miss the drop down address bar URLs in Chrome :(.

  14. 14. By Joe Bligh on 28th Oct ’08 at 14:38pm

    The beta doesn’t look too promising. Crashed twice in the first week for me and had a serious problem with YouTube, which is worrying as this is a Google service. Haven’t tried Vimeo or similar video-sharing sites to check for problems with them. I think I’m going to wait until there has been an official release and then compare it to other major browsers, such as Firefox, which I’m very biased towards.

    Thanks for the detailed review – any chance of a follow-up post?

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