Is the Future Chrome?

What does Google know about web browsers that Microsoft and other browser makers don’t? Plenty, if Chrome is any indication. Keep reading to find out the philosophy behind Google’s new open source web browser, learn its advantages, and discover what is quite possibly the future of web browsing.

There’s an old joke that keeps doing the rounds in Ireland. A tourist is hopelessly lost in the maze of unmarked byways. He’s been driving around for hours trying to find the way to Cork, assisted only by a map that doesn’t seem to show half the roads and a SatNav that keeps telling him to drive across muddy fields and along raging rivers. Eventually the frustration is too much, and he stops an ancient local to ask the way. “So” says the old man, thinking hard, “you say you want to go to Cork? Well now, if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.”

Although the connection between rural Ireland and a brand new software application might seem obscure, this is precisely the logic Google has applied to the new web browser that it released to widespread astonishment on September 1, 2008. Not content with cornering the search engine market, releasing a fully-featured webmail application and developing an online calendar, Google has now taken a long, cold look at the browser market and confirmed what many of us have suspected for some time: that all is not well.

The company has recognized that most browser designs are based on a ten-year-old map of the Internet, and decided not to start from there. Its goal instead has been to develop a browser optimized not just for showing web pages, but for running the applications that are central to Web 2.0: applications for watching and uploading videos and images, playing games, blogging and socializing. The result is Chrome: a stable, streamlined, multi-process browser in which security has been prioritized, speed boosted, and the whole thing released under an open source license.

It sounds impressive, and first reports suggest that it is. However, not everyone is delighted to see Google attempting to corner an even greater share of the Web than it had already. The timing of Chrome’s release is significant, coming as it does during a period of unprecedented concern over the implications of Google’s information gathering and privacy policies.

Such concerns were not mitigated by the small print of the original Chrome EULA, which seemed to claim that Google would have rights over literally all content that was “submitted, posted or displayed” in the browser. Surfers started to speculate how far this claim might go. Could the company, for example, assert its rights over content – an original image, let’s say – that was developed on a local server and previewed in Chrome on a private network? Inevitably, perhaps, some people were quick to suspect a sinister side to all this, presuming it to be all part of Google’s mission for world domination.

Whether Google has managed to allay such fears with its rapid apology and declaration that the license wording was a mistake remains to be seen. That announcement was backed up by a rewording of the offending section to the unambiguous “You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.” But this kind of carelessness on the company’s part only provides ammunition for those queuing up to confer on it the title of New Great Satan of the software world.

The reality is that, while such claims of malicious intent are almost certainly exaggerated, Chrome does look set to have a radical impact on the Internet — and Google won’t need to resort to data theft to achieve this. The technology deployed in the new browser should go a long way towards assuring its success. There is also a high probability that Chrome will prompt a surge in interest in Google’s other online applications, further reinforcing the company’s ever-increasing market share. And the open-source license will ensure that problems, of whatever variety, are resolved swiftly, making Chrome attractive in ways that are simply not an option for Microsoft’s market-leading Internet Explorer.

From a technological perspective, Google has broken the browser mold with Chrome. Setting out explicitly to resolve the common browser issues of stability and speed, the company has arrived at a pragmatic multi-process solution. Until now, browsers have been single-threaded, meaning that whenever any single component – JavaScript, for example – hangs, the whole browser comes crashing down with it. Inevitably, given the number of components at work in a typical browsing session, such crashes have been all too common. Single threading was a problem for operating systems such as early versions of Microsoft Windows, which has been largely solved by the introduction of multi-processing.

Google has adopted the same approach for Chrome, implementing separate processes for not only each browser tab but for individual JavaScript threads and plugins. The stability gains of this approach have the potential to revolutionize the way people use web browsers. Until now, only the extremely brave would have risked working on a valuable document in a browser-hosted word processor or webmail client while the same application was performing standard Internet tasks such as running unknown scripts downloaded from unknown web sites. But the promise of multiple processes is that if one tab dies, the browser as a whole will keep running, protecting your other work from these occupational hazards.

Giving each tab and process its own memory space has another big advantage: efficiency. When you close a tab in Chrome you end the entire process, freeing up all the memory the tab was using. Other browsers are typically less polite, holding on to bits of memory when tabs are closed, resulting in eventual memory bloat and possible premature death.

Chrome also breaks boundaries with its approach to JavaScript. The previous generation of browsers tended to approach JavaScript from the perspective that it was only necessary to be able to run the simple scripts behind superficial bells and whistles such as expanding menus and the like. The Chrome development team have taken a more expansive view, understanding that full scale applications are now the order of the day and developing an entirely new virtual JavaScript machine to suit. The primary advantage of this is extraordinary speed, which is achieved primarily by compiling the JavaScript code before it is run.

This means that Chrome has the potential to overcome the sluggish performance typical of browser-based productivity applications — a development that threatens to make web-based applications genuinely usable for the first time. This is all obviously very much in Google’s interests. Its online application suite has long been respected, and Gmail has set new standards for web mail. Nonetheless, relatively few people have seriously considered entirely abandoning their desktop applications in favor of web-based alternatives. This could all be about to change.

It has been a subject of frequent discussion whether open-source software holds the advantage over proprietary applications when it comes to reliability and responsiveness to user requirements. The argument goes that access to the source code has enabled bugs and errors to be detected more quickly, and that users haven’t had to wait for the next official update or release for a fix.

With an effectively unlimited development team on the case, modifications can be carried out with a speed and efficiency that would be impossible in a conventional development environment. The counter-argument is that a commercial environment is the best guarantee of developer competence, and that open source is inherently liable to be buggier and less stable.

Each side has examples to support its position. Chrome, on the face of it stands somewhere in the middle, and it might not be too far-fetched to suggest that it could offer the best of both worlds.

Despite the no-cost distribution model of Chrome, the indisputably commercial environment of Google requires that the software must perform to the highest possible standard. At the same time, releasing it under an open-source license could turn out to be an inspired decision.

The welcome transparency this open source release affords the browser is likely to help deflect any lingering suspicions that Chrome is just an elaborate plot to further Google’s information gathering intentions. This is a point critics of the unfortunate licensing slip-up would do well to remember.

So how does all this leave the long term future looking? It’s not an easy call. The latest versions of Mozilla and Internet Explorer each boast significant improvements, particularly in their JavaScript handling. This provides direct competition to Chrome, especially since these products are so well established, and the new kid on the block has a vast amount of ground to make up before it can be said to represent a real threat to either.

However, Google has a key advantage over both: most Web users visit Google’s site many times a day. It is absolutely central to almost everybody’s Internet experience. This means that Google is in prime position to persuade people of the benefits of changing to Chrome.

That they are serious about performing this persuasion is demonstrated by the very way in which Chrome was announced to the world. Not many major software releases are introduced in comic book format, but in typically maverick fashion Google employed graphic artist Scott Mcleod to produce the press release that heralded Chrome.

This isn’t as banal as it sounds: McLeod’s 38-page comic is genuinely engaging. It’s also filled with real content, describing in a refreshingly accessible style both the philosophy behind Chrome and the technologies that Google hope will guarantee its success.

If it is to believed, there is a development effort of real substance and an encompassing vision underpinning Chrome, all of which promises to revolutionize the way the Web works. People looking towards the future could do a lot worse than to start from here.

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