Google’s beta release of its open source web browser Chrome on 2nd September – less than three months after Mozilla’s record breaking launch of Firefox 3 – underlines just how central Google is becoming to our online lives.
Some commentators expressed surprise that Google, which already offers everything from word processing to instant messaging in addition to its ubiquitous search engine, would launch a browser at all. But the only real surprise is that the California-based company didn’t do it sooner.
The announcement of Chrome via a 38 page online comic book isn’t the only interesting aspect of Google’s latest application. Indeed, as soon as you launch the browser, users are presented with a home page that shows clickable thumbnail versions of the nine sites you most visit (this is actually similar to the Firefox add-on Fast Dial).
There are also links to recent bookmarks and recently closed tabs and, of course, a Google search box. It’s the most useful default home page ever conceived.
Google has renamed the address bar the Omnibox (which has got to be better than Firefox’s self-proclaimed AwesomeBar) to reflect its added functionality. The bar incorporates search and a browser history, eliminating the need for a separate search box.
Chrome, which Google built with the open source software WebKit, also features some tricks that go beyond the purely aesthetic. Each tab is run as a separate process so, if one of them crashes, it won’t freeze the entire application and force users to restart it.
This means that external software is isolated in a sandbox so that it cannot access personal documents. It also prevents keystroke copying, which can be used to surreptitiously obtain passwords.
The clever use of tabs also enables stealth browsing. If a user opens an Incognito tab, the browser doesn’t record a history or anything entered into text fields. Any new cookies are stored in a temporary folder that is deleted when that Incognito tab is closed.
Unsurprisingly, the Incognito function has quickly been dubbed the porn mode although its uses do extend beyond simply being able to view salacious content anonymously. Using an Incognito tab for online banking or other transactions in which you have to input your credit card details, for instance, offers another layer of protection online.
All of which is housed in the sort of minimal and unobtrusive design with which Google is synonymous: the top of the window features just two rows of toolbars, which incorporate the Omnibox, tabs and navigation buttons.
A page’s loading status and links’ URLs are discreetly displayed at the bottom of the window as necessary, in contrast to the omnipresent status bar of most browsers. Chrome also dispenses with a separate window for downloads, which are instead displayed at the bottom of the relevant tab.
A ‘create application shortcut’ option enables users to create desktop shortcuts to web applications that then run in a window with no browser controls. It means web apps look and behave like desktop applications, a further step towards Google taking more of our interaction with PCs online.
There was an early hiccup when it became apparent that the End User License Agreement included a clause that demanded users surrender the copyright to any content submitted through the browser.
Google subsequently edited the offending clause – which forms part of its standard terms and conditions – to state that users “retain copyright and any other rights”. The changes were made retroactively, so they cover content submitted while the original clause was in place.
Google is currently working on versions of Chrome for Mac and Linux operating systems, although there’s no indication when these will be available. For Mac and Linux users keen to see what they’re missing out on, a third-party port of the Windows version is available.
There is, as yet, no support for the sort of add-ons that help make Firefox so appealing. But it’s worth remembering that this is just version 0.2 of Chrome. Even Gmail, which was launched in 2004, is still officially in beta. By the time it’s released, Chrome 1.0 may be barely recognisable compared to today’s version.
Whether Chrome will eventually compete with Internet Explorer (which, as of August 2008, has a market share of 72.15%) and Firefox (19.73%) is a moot point. Even at this early stage, it’s a fast, innovative browser.
Many of its features will, no doubt, be embraced by other browsers. So even if you never download Chrome, there’s a good chance that you’ll still benefit from it.
Zeta Exclusive Interview
Google released the web browser Chrome in September. But why were they doing it? How would it affect their relationship with Mozilla? And did they really include a mode specifically designed to allow users to view porn anonymously? Zeta throws these questions, and more, at Anthony House, Google UK’s Communications & Public Affairs Manager
The interview is now live, and can be found here
Interview with Anthony House about Google Chrome