Global Economics

Google's Chrome: The Danish Magic Inside


Danish JavaScript expert Lars Bak is the wizard behind Google's new Web browser, Chrome, which aims to change the way we use computers

Note: This is a corrected version of the story that originally ran on Nov. 12, clarifying that Google Chrome runs JavaScript, not Java.

A Danish farm nestled just a bike ride away from Aarhus—a small city founded 1,000 years ago by Vikings—is a long way from traffic-clogged Silicon Valley and its high-energy engineers and entrepreneurs. Yet it was here that work began on the engine that powers the new Chrome Web browser from Google (GOOG), a product that aims to change the very nature of Internet browsing and the way we use computers.

Traditional browsers such as Internet Explorer from Microsoft (MSFT) and Firefox from Mozilla are designed primarily to display Web pages accessed from remote servers. But thanks to increasing use of the JavaScript language, there are now a growing number of full-fledged software applications available via the Net that run within browsers.

When Google dreamed up Chrome, its aim was to create a browser capable of running those applications dramatically faster than any previous alternative (BusinessWeek.com, 9/3/08). If the product succeeds as planned, it could upend the traditional computing model—typified by Microsoft Windows and Office—where software loads and runs locally on a PC, replacing it instead with an approach known as "cloud computing," where programs run over the Internet.

That's where the Danish farmhouse comes in. Its occupant, Lars Bak, is one of the world's foremost experts in JavaScript engines—programs that run JavaScript code on a variety of local computers. A slim, 45-year-old Danish computer scientist with close-cropped hair, Bak has spent the last two decades working on so-called "virtual machines" that, like the JavaScript engine in Chrome, execute one program inside another. He holds 18 U.S. patents in the field and spent seven years at Sun, where he developed a high-performance virtual machine that is still used by Sun Microsystems (JAVA), Apple (AAPL), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).

A Call from Google

Bak had moved back to Denmark in 2000 so that his two daughters, now 13 and 15, could be educated in his native country. Two years later he left Sun to start a new company with a pair of students from Aarhus University, called OOVM, that was bought in 2004 by Switzerland's Esmertec (ESMN.F). After a two-year stint as chief architect and engineering manager for Esmertec, which specializes in Java software for mobile phones, Bak was ready for a break.

Two weeks later, he got a call from Google asking him to work on Chrome. Bak says he was intrigued by the project because "the goal was to raise the bar for the whole industry." But he and his family didn't want to leave the 1860 farmhouse on eight acres of land near Aarhus where they live. Google agreed to hire him anyway—and Bak set up shop in an old stable on the property and began hiring local talent.

The engineering team soon outgrew the stable and moved to office space at Aarhus University. There, Bak and a dozen other engineers worked in stealth mode to build a new JavaScript engine for Chrome, code-named V8, that was based on open-source software and designed from the ground up for speedy performance.

"Lars' experience in this area made him the ideal person to work on this ambitious, significant project," says Nelson Mattos, Google's vice-president of engineering for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. "V8 is the key to Chrome's remarkable speed, and because it's open source, it's also a contribution to browser technology in general."

Raising the Bar

Experts agree that the speed of the engine that Bak and his team designed is one of Chrome's key differentiators. In the short term, according to tech consultancy Gartner (IT), the new browser's success will be measured by whether it delivers a superior user experience for JavaScript-intensive applications, such as Google's Gmail. But the ultimate test is whether Chrome's appeal will extend beyond early adopters to mainstream enterprise customers—a chasm that other challengers such as Firefox and Apple's Safari haven't yet crossed in dominant numbers.

One thing is for sure. Chrome is expected to achieve what Bak set out to do: raise the bar for the whole industry. Press reports have estimated Chrome to be as much as 56 times faster than Internet Explorer at running JavaScript programs. Bak is cagey about Chrome's performance compared with rivals because it depends on which benchmarks are used. Plus, competing browsers are also evolving rapidly; indeed, some reports already claim that a new JavaScript engine in Firefox outperforms V8. "Competitors will catch up," says Sheri McLeish, an analyst at technology consultancy Forrester Research (FORR). "Whenever there are new entrants it ups the ante."

As for Bak, he is still at work in Denmark, continuing to tinker with Chrome's engine to make it better. The office at Aarhus University doesn't offer any of the perks that Google is famous for, such as free haircuts and gourmet meals. But living in the Danish countryside and commuting on his bike to a job with one of Silicon Valley's most successful companies is all the reward he needs, Bak says. That, and potentially changing the whole way people use computers and the Internet.


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