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Google's Bruiser of a Browser


Chrome focuses on running programs on the Web, not just showing pages

In an uncharacteristic burst of modesty, Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin says we should think of the company's new Chrome Web browser simply as a worthy challenger to Microsoft's (MSFT) Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox, and Apple's (AAPL) Safari. "What we want is a diverse and vibrant ecosystem," Brin said at the Sept. 2 Chrome launch. "We want several browsers that are viable and substantial choices."

Don't believe it for a second. Although the first version of Chrome has a half-finished feel and runs only on Windows, a close look at its features and underlying design reveals a far more dramatic goal. Chrome aims to take on not just Internet Explorer's 75% share of the browser market but Windows' dominance of the desktop itself.

Chrome lacks the flashy buttons and toolbars of other browsers. It has just one box for entering either a search term or a URL. But this minimalism isn't merely aesthetic; Google recognizes that Web pages have become far more complex than they used to be. Nearly every Web page you see is a program in its own right. Think about a Facebook page, a Google Maps window, or a page at Salesforce.com that lets an executive track customer contacts. Instead of consisting of text, pictures, and formatting instructions, these pages are full of software code. Chrome sees that its job is to run these programs efficiently and reliably.

I'm not saying other browser publishers are oblivious to this change. Both Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 (recently made available for public download) and Mozilla's Firefox 3 offer admirable security and stability improvements. But they still focus on features designed as add-ons to Web pages. For example, Internet Explorer 8 lets you highlight a word or phrase and pull up references from assorted sources. You can also create buttons that display continually updated snippets of Web pages. These touches can be helpful, but they reflect an outdated idea of what a browser is all about.

Google has taken a different tack. It didn't expend much effort on what traditionally has been the heart of a browser, the rendering engine, which creates viewable pages from the text, images, and instructions supplied by Web servers. Google just adapted the open-source WebKit browser engine used by Safari.

So where did Google engineers really hunker down? The browser's Task Manager, which is hidden inside the Developer menu, reveals Google's priorities. Click on Task Manager, and you get a window that lists each page you have opened and how much memory and processor time it's using. There's even a button, End Process, that forces a misbehaving page to close—something you often cannot do with Internet Explorer or Firefox without closing the browser and all your other Web applications. (There goes that hour of work you just put into your blog.)

If this kill function sounds familiar, that's because the concept of task management is a core component of operating systems, such as Windows or Mac OS X. And that's my point: Chrome offers many of the features of an operating system. It loads Web-based applications, manages their memory and processor use, and keeps them from interfering with one another. This is the kind of secure operation you want, if you use a computer mainly to run Web-based programs. Clearly, Chrome aims to make traditional operating systems less relevant.

Chrome won't dispatch Internet Explorer or Firefox, let alone Windows, to history's dustbin. Not yet, anyway. These mature browsers have been getting steadily better, and Internet Explorer 8 marks a significant advance in protecting users from malicious Web sites. What's more, Google's great ideas have often suffered from poor execution—its Gmail program is officially in its fifth year of beta testing. But Google has placed a marker that is sure to shake up the industry.

Business Exchange related topics:

Google

Google Chrome

Google Products

Web 3.0

Wildstrom is Technology You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at techandyou@businessweek.com .

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