September 05, 2008

What You Need to Know About Chrome, Google's Shiny New Browser

Google just released a beta of Chrome, throwing their hat into the browser wars. A couple of thoughts on what this means, and what you need to know about it if you want to try it:

First, the Google Chrome browser sports an interesting minimalist design and some unique features (particularly how it approaches the tab metaphor and stability). Google has thoughtfully outlined them in video, and check out Walt Mossberg's practical perspective, including a good description of its pros and cons. It is, after all, a beta or test release.

Chrome sports two browsing modes: Default and Incognito. Those who are concerned over their browser breadcrumb trails will likely welcome Incognito, which is meant to allow you to surf without Chrome saving the information after you close the window. Of course, there are other ways to track your web activities, particularly in corporate environments, so don't get too comfortable with this. Even some personal firewalls keep logs on web sites visited.

That brings me to the next point -- privacy. Why would the leading search engine company, skilled at tracking data across the web, release a web browser? How much of your personal web surfing information is being tracked and recorded by Chrome, either stored locally on your PC or sent back to Google? The conspiracy theorists are having a field day with this. After all, Google tracks more of your web activities while you're logged into your Google account than as an anonymous user. So why wouldn't they do the same with a browser they developed?

Well, the jury is still out on this one, particularly on its increased reliance upon a user's browsing history. Fortunately for us, Chrome is an open source software project -- which means that others can look at the code and see what it is doing. This is one of the great reasons why I frequently look to use open source software. Second, here's a post by Google's Matt Cutts which attempts to explain what does and doesn't get sent between your PC and Google when you use Chrome. I for one appreciated the transparency, and am hoping that it's a fairly complete accounting of which types of data are being transferred, and under which use cases. Although it should be noted that Matt isn't on the Chrome development team, as he's the head of Google's webspam team. So while well-intended and useful, consider that it's somewhat secondhand information.

Just as importantly, Google is more than ever jumping into mainstream software development (I'd be hard-pressed to get more fundamental than how we access the web and its rich content). Along with Google Apps, this pits them directly against the market share-dominant Microsoft on yet another level. However, it would also be naive to ignore the information and relationships gained from Chrome users to further enhance and develop their search services, where Microsoft has never quite "gotten it" in my opinion. Chrome also gives Google a browser by which it can serve up its other web apps without fear that Microsoft will alter IE in some proprietary or anticompetitive manner. This isn't to say that Chrome is superior to all other browsers, as it still has some issues and is missing several key features. But it gives Google a platform over which it didn't have control previously.

Despite the privacy concerns, which should be more formally addressed to users' comfort level, I'm always glad to see another major player in the browser market. If you think about it, web browsing really hasn't changed all that much from the mid-90's. Sure, there have been a number of new enhancements such as tabbed browsing and inline searching, but the underlying mechanics have remained the same for well over 10 years.

Also, how many of us are genuinely irked when we have one browser tab crash and it crashes your entire browsing session, whether it be IE, Firefox, or whatever -- especially when you have a dozen or more open tabs at the moment? Sure, they'll offer to reopen your last set of open pages, but then you've lost all the forward/back browsing capability for each one, so you can't easily track around to re-find that site you found in the middle of your surfing. Your browsing history might have it, but you'll have to hunt for it.

Using this as an example, I'm glad to see that each Chrome tab runs separately in memory from the other tabs, so that when one tab crashes, it doesn't crash the others. With Google's savvy, ease of use, and advanced technologies in simple wrappings, it's going to up the ante among web browser developers and keep them on their toes. That nudge has been a long time in coming, as evidenced in Walt Mossberg's observations:

"Meanwhile, Microsoft hasn’t been sitting still. The second beta version of IE8 is the best edition of Internet Explorer in years. It is packed with new features of its own, some of which are similar to those in Chrome, and some of which, in my view, top Chrome’s features."
Whether you're in the Google or Microsoft camp, or just want a better browser, that's good news for all of us.

Topic(s):   Privacy & Security  |  Web Wizardry
Posted by Jeff Beard