Today, Google released a brand new web browser into the market to compete with the likes of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Opera. It's called Google Chrome. I'm somewhat familiar with the term Chrome from Firefox, which refers to the user interface as its 'chrome'. I like the name--it's more creative than the clear-but-boring 'Internet Explorer', yet not as far out there as 'Orkut' (which I know is a guy's name, but what does it have to do with the actual service?).
I currently rely on two browsers on a day to day basis. I primarily use Flock, a little known browser based on Firefox. It comes with a bunch of handy built in features that integrate it with online services like Facebook and Delicious. I also use Internet Explorer (currently IE8 beta) due to the fact that many of the Business web apps I have to use at work are designed solely to be supported by Internet Explorer (including the web application we built for my last client).
Last night, I discovered and read all 36 pages of a clever comic book describing the thought process that Google went through in developing their new browser. This morning, I eagerly awaited the 11am launch, refreshing the web page www.google.com/chrome every few minutes hoping that maybe it was launched (yep, I'm a big nerd...). When it finally became available for download close to 12pm, I quickly installed it (boy that was fast and easy) and have been using it all day. I really like it. Here's why:
- I love the UI. It's clean and isn't bloated with toolbars. And I don't feel like it's missing anything, which is nice. Every single interaction has been thoughtfully and inovatively designed. Here are some touches I enjoy:
- Tabs are top and center. At first glance, there isn't much more to this browser than tabs with web pages. The tabs are very zippy and I love how you can drag them wherever you want, even out into their old window and back in. (Note: While moving tabs, I discovered the only bug I've encountered thus far. I was dragging a tab and it dissippeared. Now there's a blank space in the row of tabs, like the browser has a missing tooth.) Different from any other browser, all buttons and the URL box live below the tabs. Each tab has its own address, so why not it's own URL box? This also means you don't have to move your mouse as far to get to the back and forward buttons. I like how Google always rethinks design and isn't afraid to make a big change if they think it will make things more usable.
- New tabs are actually useful. In Firefox, I use an add-on called Speed Dial (actually a feature ripped off from Opera) to create a homepage that has screenshot thumbnails that link to my top 6 websites (Gmail, Facebook, Google Calendar, Yahoo! Mail, iGoogle, and Google Reader), which I set manually. Chrome actually uses my browser history to determine what my top sites are and uses that information to automatically create a Speed Dial-like screen of thumbnails for my most used pages, making new tabs useful with zero configuration.
- Try searching for something on the page. CTRL+F. As you type the letters of what you're finding, the scrollbar on the right lights up with highlighting to indicate where on the page you can find the letters you're searching for. Nice touch. (I like Firefox's find implementation because you can set it up to start finding when you start typing without CTRL+F, but otherwise, Chrome does an excellend job, much better than IE, which still insists on popping up a separate window for my search term and only searching after I click a button).
- Status Bar. I have always thought that browsers need a status bar at the bottom so that I can see what URL the link I'm about to click is going to take me to. Both Firefox and Internet Explorer include a status bar by default, though you can get rid of it if you want to add more screen real estate. Safari opts to hide the status bar in favor of having web pages run all the way to the very last pixel of the browser. But in Safari, I find myself feeling blind as I click a link not knowing where it will take me. Chrome has the best of both worlds. There's no status bar, but when I mouseover a link, I see a little plesant blue bar at the bottom that pops up to tell me where the link will take me.
- Better use of the Operating System. Google architected the way this browser works with the computer's Operating System completely differently than every other. Each tab uses its own OS process, where as other browsers use just one OS process regardless of how many things are running in the browser or how many tabs are open. You can even access a little Chrome "task manager" which will presumably tell me which tab is causing trouble if I ever run into performance issues (which I haven't yet!).
- Crashing. Because each tab has it's own OS process, if one of the tabs is crashing for whatever reason, it doesn't bring down the whole browser--just the one bad tab. My experince with Chrome has been very stable, so I haven't had the pleasure of seeing how it handles a crashing tab. I've been setting up this blog and composing this entry in Google Docs, running Chrome for hours with about a dozen or so tabs open.
- Web applications feel even more like desktop applications. Web "Applications" like Google Docs run in the cloud which has long been referred to and speculated about as the operating system of the future. With applications running in Google Chrome tabs, they feel even more like desktop applications. With the integration of Google Gears (which allows interactive web applications to run offline and then later sync with the web as if they were always online) and the ability to run an application in its own Google Chrome window via a shortcut, this browser really does cement the idea of the Web Operating System. I look forward to the day powerful browsers with the same standards-based infrastructure run on all operating systems, allowing developers to write code once and run it on any OS. Some day, maybe the Browser will be the only desktop application we need. It's been speculated by some, and I agree that it seems to be coming to fruition.
With all the good, there are, of course, some things that could use some work:
- It's missing Extensibility. One of the most compelling features of Firefox (and Flock), though probably not the most mainstream one, is the ability to extend the browser. There are hundreds of add-ons you can install to tweak how the browser works and looks. For instance, Flock uses an extension to display all of my Facebook contacts in a column on the left side of the browser along with their most recent status. Extensions are not an option yet with Chrome. Ideally, Google would find a way to support the same extensions already built for Firefox so developers wouldn't have to develop multiple versions of the same extensions (a pipe dream, I'm certain).
- It's missing Web Integration. Google Chrome has History. Google has online Web History. Google Chrome has Bookmarks. Google has online Bookmarks. I frequently use two different computers (my work laptop, a Lenovo runing Vista and my home desktop, an Apple iMac) and would like to have the same history and bookmarks and settings automatically on any computer I use Google Chrome on. They have the infrastructure in place to store all that in the cloud--ideally I'd like to 'sign in' to chrome and have it access all my settings (history, bookmarks, saved/encrypted passwords) from the cloud so I could have a consistent browser experience regardless of what computer I'm on. Mozilla is close to achieving this with their (somewhat buggy though improving) Weave as is Opera with Link. Google recently stopped supporting their own Firefox browser extension called Google Browser Sync, so maybe that was because they wanted to focus the resources on implementing the same for Chrome. My fingers are croseed that over time the browser itself will become more integrated with the web (and for anti-trust purposes, let me use whatever web bookmarking service I want as the back end!).
- It's not perfect. I encountered a few compatibilty issues where web apps didn't behave as expected (I can't comment on someone's Facebook status, for example), but I'd say that's to be expected for an otherwise fairly flawless brand new beta product on its first day out the door. The issues are most likely due to the need for updates to the web site themselves rather than to the browser, similar to how developers need to update sites to make them 'Standards Compliant' so that they'll display properly in IE8's newly default 'standards' mode. Comparing these two beta 'Standards Compliant' browsers, Chrome definately seems to display more sites correctly.
- Mac Support. It's coming, apparently. Can't wait...meanwhile, I'll install it via Parallels on my iMac.
Overall, I'm very impressed by Google Chrome. I think it will be a difficult climb for the browser to gain share, but know that Google has lots of money and clout in the industry, so anything is possible. Even if it doesn't gain significant market share, it's likely to increase competition which will only help make all browsers better. It's also 100% open source, so maybe if IE steals pieces of the code, the mass IE audience can benefit.
I'm excited by Google's move and excited to see what happens next. Alex is staying tuned.