Google's Chrome Web Browser

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2702, 2009-01-09, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 7-12) and their website.

In the early years of the Web, Netscape's browser, Navigator, got off to an early start, and was the application with which countless people first encountered the Internet. But it did not take long for Microsoft to leverage its operating system near-monopoly to crush Navigator, with Internet Explorer (IE) eventually dominating the browser market completely. Against Microsoft's massive war chest and willingness to do anything for market leadership, Navigator's days were numbered.

Not long after that, hard-core Web users and developers began to despair that Internet Explorer — with its endless security and page styling flaws — would forever control the browser sphere. Fortunately, like a phoenix rising from the Netscape ashes, the Mozilla Foundation released Firefox, which since then has slowly but surely continued to take market share away from IE, as people discover its greater functionality and security. European computer programmers were equally motivated to develop an alternative to IE, resulting in Opera, whose fan base may be smaller than that of Firefox, but is equally loyal. In the Apple world, the Safari browser has served as the superior alternative to IE, for Mac users.

But IE continued to command the lion's share of the market, and that trend looked to continue with the long-overdue release of version 7, which attempted to catch up with its rivals in terms of its feature set. Mozilla and Opera do not appear to have the marketing muscle to dethrone IE. Many observers concluded that only an Internet giant like Google or Yahoo would have a chance of doing so. Yet neither one seemed to have any such plans. In May 2006, in a conference call with Wall Street analysts, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt noted that the company would only create their own Web browser "if we thought there was a real user benefit." Industry pundits apparently misinterpreted this to mean that Google had no browser plans at all — rather than seeing through the verbal smokescreen, which contained no commitment either way.

The G-Browser

Thus the computer world was, for the most part, surprised when, on 2 September 2008, Google made available its brand new browser, Google Chrome, sporting a colorful and distinctive logo.

Google Chrome logo
Figure 1. Google Chrome logo

The Google Chrome features page presents nine major features of Chrome, most of which distinguished it from the competing browsers (at least at the time): a new tab page, application shortcuts, dynamic tabs, crash control, an incognito mode, safe browsing, instant bookmarks, importing settings, and simpler downloads. We will briefly consider each one of these.

Like Firefox and Opera, Google Chrome allows you to have multiple Web pages open simultaneously, in a single instance of the browser, by keeping each page in a separate tab. Yet in Chrome, anytime you open a new tab, rather than getting a blank page or the same default page each time, you instead see a page much like a browser portal — containing thumbnails of your most visited pages, your most frequently used search engines, the pages that you recently bookmarked, and your most recently closed pages. That last one is especially handy if you accidentally close a tab containing a page you have yet to finish with.

Chrome allows you to create a shortcut on your Windows desktop, which can immediately launch any Web-based application within a Chrome window. This can be used in conjunction with Google Gears, which make it possible to run Web applications even when you are not connected to the Internet. Google Chrome supports creating new tabs quickly, and reordering all open tabs by dragging them into new locations one of the time. Chrome goes even further than Firefox, allowing you to pull a tab down into its own window.

Google's new browser is clearly intended to provide greater stability and security than its rivals. Every tab is run as a separate process within Windows, so if a particular Web application crashes, it will not crash the entire browser and cause loss of data. For enhanced privacy, Chrome has an incognito mode, which suspends the usual saving of your Web activities in your browser's history. Chrome will warn you if a page that you are trying to open is considered unsafe, such as a page hosting malware or phishing scams.

Pages can be bookmarked quickly by clicking on a yellow star icon, rather than using a menu item or keyboard shortcut, as with IE. When you install Google Chrome, it allows you to import your bookmarks and saved Web passwords from your other browsers. Lastly, Chrome has a built-in file downloads manager that many users may prefer over those of other browsers, because it is displayed in a panel at the bottom of the current page, rather than in a separate dialog box. In addition, once a file has finished downloading, you can easily drag it to your Windows desktop or launch the file with a single click.

Similar to Firefox's new "awesome bar", Chrome allows you to search directly from the address bar — definitely a feature one would expect from a search engine giant. It even displays suggestions, as you type in the field. In general, Chrome is similar to the Google search page, with a minimalist and easy-to-use design, for greater speed — both human interaction and application performance.

Unlike all other browsers, Chrome has no menu bar, giving it a cleaner look. Users can customize Chrome by clicking the wrench icon and choosing "Options" from the drop-down menu. The various configuration options are organized not by subject matter — as is normal and makes for faster navigation — but by technical level: Basics, Minor Tweaks, and Under the Hood.

Rather than taking the usual approach of providing useful information in a help system built into the application — as all other browsers have done — Google, in its usual groundbreaking style, has instead opted for an online user guide presented as a comic book. It focuses more on the reasons for the development team's engineering decisions, and less on how to use the Chrome interface and settings, which are generally self-explanatory.

Chrome Kickoff

Installing Google Chrome is a simple and quick process: Login to your PC as the administrator, if you have not already done so. Starting at the Google Chrome homepage, click on the "Download Google Chrome" button, and you will be taken to the Terms of Service page. Click the "Accept and Install" button, which should automatically pop up a dialog box that allows you to save the file "ChromeSetup.exe" to your PC. Once that setup file has finished downloading (which should only take a few seconds, as it is less than 480 kilobytes), open the file by double-clicking it. Depending upon your Windows security settings, you may see a "Open File - Security Warning" dialog box asking if you want to run the Chrome setup file; click the "Run" button to resume installation.

The Google Installer tries to connect to the Web server tools.google.com (and, on one occasion during my tests, id.google.com). That first server is required for the installation process, so be sure to allow your outbound firewall to make the connection.

The installer then begins downloading the actual browser application, and then pops up a welcome dialog box.

Welcome dialog box
Figure 2. Welcome dialog box

Initially, you may want to click the checkbox so that Google Chrome is not made your default browser, until you have had a chance to try it out and see if you want to use it more than your previous default browser. Assuming that you have Mozilla Firefox installed and configured on your system, after you click the "Start Google Chrome" button, the installer will display a dialog indicating that it will import your Firefox bookmarks, search settings, saved passwords, and browsing history.

Importing from Firefox
Figure 3. Importing from Firefox

However, if you have Firefox running while doing the Chrome installation, the installer will prompt you to close Firefox.

Importing - close Firefox
Figure 4. Importing - close Firefox

After your Firefox settings, if any, have been imported, Google Chrome starts up, and you should see the initial browser window displayed below, with two tabs. The first and current one is the "New Tab" discussed earlier.

Initial browser window
Figure 5. Initial browser window

The second tab shows a welcome page.

Welcome page
Figure 6. Welcome page

Now simply click in the address field, to the right of the small blue star, and take Chrome for a test drive!

A Shiny Future?

In light of the technological and financial strength of Google, are Chrome's prospects positive? It certainly has some factors in its favor. Like all other major browsers, Chrome is free and easy to use. Also, it starts quicker than Firefox, especially for anyone using many Firefox extensions. It runs on both Windows Vista and XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), so it competes head-to-head with Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. Google has indicated that it will also develop a version for the Mac, eventually making it a competitor of Safari.

Google has already moved against Firefox, by no longer making it the default browser in Google Pack (a combined set of Google and third-party applications), but instead including Chrome and making that one the default. This has led to speculation that Google might end its search agreement with the Mozilla Foundation, which provides the latter with needed revenue. Nonetheless, global adoption of Firefox continues apace.

For Google Chrome to gain a substantial foothold, it will need to substantially outperform its rivals in functionality, speed, and extendibility (as Firefox has done — and continues to do — against IE), or it will need to force its way into the market through preinstallation of operating systems installed on new computers (as IE did against Netscape). In the realm of that second strategy, Google is reportedly in discussion with Dell (as of this writing), to have Chrome shipped with Dell PCs in the future. OEM partners — such as Dell and HP — reportedly refuse to include an application such as Chrome while it is still labeled beta, since that gives customers the perception of an unfinished product. This is most likely what prompted Google to announce, on 10 December 2008, that they would be taking their browser out of beta status. This also reassured Chrome fans who worried that their new browser might be allowed to languish — the fate of Lively and Knol.

On the negative side, Google Chrome lacks many of the features taken for granted by Firefox, Opera, and Safari users. For instance, Firefox and Opera can be made even more powerful through the use of extensions and add-ons, which are growing in number and capabilities. As another example, Opera's support for mobile phones and other handheld devices, is pioneering and perhaps unequaled. Furthermore, some prospective users may not be pleased with the lack of online help within Chrome. In addition, some may not be impressed with the way Google Installer places a Chrome shortcut on the Windows desktop without asking whether the user wants one — unlike all well-behaved application installers.

Also on the negative side of the ledger, the Chrome end-user license agreement (EULA) has on more than one occasion proven to be a sore point for potential and current users of the browser. When the browser was first released, the EULA — known as the Chrome Terms of Service — actually specified that Google would have perpetual rights to do just about anything they want with any of the content that a Chrome user would send or receive through the browser! As expected, the resultant public outcry was immediate and heated, prompting Google to quickly excise those offensive and ill-chosen demands from the EULA. But the section barring use by anyone not of legal age, was retained. In December 2008, Google again modified the terms, removing the section that described how users can terminate their relationship with Google. On the other hand, the terms were improved, such that personal information is no longer required, the browser can be used by children, automated access is allowed, and you are no longer barred from discussing confidential information about Chrome (whatever that might be).

Some proponents of alternative browsers fear that Google Chrome, if it really does take off, will simply take market share away from Firefox and Opera, and not Internet Explorer, since that last browser tends to be used by people who use the default applications built into Microsoft Windows, and may not even be aware that there are alternatives.

Regardless of how this second browser war plays out, Google Chrome will most likely end up a winner, as will all of the Internet users who benefit from this increased competition in developing the ultimate Web browser.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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