Innovation & Design

How Google Is Showing Off Chrome


A new project spearheaded by the search giant calls on designers and developers to exploit the potential of its Chrome browser

The Google (GOOG) home page has been ransacked. The familiar, colorful logo is upside down. The search box and the "I'm Feeling Lucky" tab have been uprooted and now point up at a rakish angle, jutting into white space. Other links have tumbled from the top navigation bar and lie in a heap on the side of the browser. What on earth is going on? Have the hackers taken over?

Yes, actually they have. But they were invited to do so. The screwy design is part of a new series, Chrome Experiments, that Google launched on Mar. 18 to demonstrate the potential of Chrome, the search giant's much-trumpeted yet little-adopted browser, which itself was updated with a handful of new features the day before.

The jumbled home page is actually a program called Google Gravity. British interactive design firm Hi-Res! recreated the search giant's regular home page, giving users the ability to wreck the joint. With the mouse, a user can spin the traditional elements into space. They soar, they careen, they bounce, until they settle higgledy-piggledy at the bottom of the browser window.

Whimsical, Fun—and Pointless

There are a further 17 inventive devices displayed in Chrome Experiments, which was commissioned by tech lead Aaron Koblin, who works in Google's Creative Lab at the company's San Francisco office. He handed a simple brief to his chosen anarchists: "Here's this browser. Make something cool with it."

In Browser Ball, you casually bounce a beach ball between different windows on the screen. Twitch loads a series of windows to guide you through the levels of an infuriatingly addictive game. In BallDroppings, the user plays around with an interactive sound-generation device to produce artistically atonal results. A couple of the experiments use data from the micro-network Twitter as a starting point to create intricate visualizations. Not all of the projects are entirely clear. The overall results are whimsical, fun and, well, ultimately fairly pointless.

There is, however, a serious mission beneath the sense of play. Google wants consumers and advertisers to see the sophistication and reliability of Chrome's technology. These toys are built using the ubiquitous development language JavaScript, which has caused browser performance problems in the past. Given that many of Google's own Web programs, such as Gmail, rely heavily on JavaScript, Google is signaling that it's serious about building a strong, sturdy platform for cloud applications.

"There has been a steady flow of new releases and features [for other browsers]," wrote Gartner analysts David Mitchell Smith and Ray Valdes in a paper published on Mar. 13. "But the speed is not enough to keep up with Google's rising goals for Web applications." With Chrome, the company has taken matters into its own hands.

Slow Uptake of New Technology

Still, it's early days for Chrome, which is available only for PCs and currently boasts merely 1.15% of the browser market share, according to the latest figures from Net Applications. In contrast, Microsoft's (MSFT) established Internet Explorer (IE8 will likely be announced soon) has nearly 68%.

More serious for Google, as the company continues to build its case for cloud-based business apps, is the slow pace of enterprise adoption of new technology. According to Forrester Research, 60% of companies were still using Internet Explorer version 6.0 in the second half of 2008. That means they haven't upgraded to the latest version of the software they have, let alone contemplated shifting platforms altogether.

"There's a lot of effort and potential risk in moving off a browser," warns Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish. "Upgrading your company to a new browser may break customized enterprise applications." Design-focused programs build buzz and goodwill from early adopters, and a consumer-driven push could even help to drive buy-in from the bottom of an organization upwards. But McLeish notes, "Chrome is certainly not secure enough for prime time."

For now, Koblin says, he hopes the project will take on a life of its own and form a library of JavaScript experiments and a community of those constructing them—a "submit experiment" form is built into Chrome Experiments' interface. So is he volunteering to monitor the submissions personally? Koblin laughs. "The worst-case scenario of too many to look at would be wonderful."

Helen Walters is the editor of Innovation and Design at BusinessWeek .

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