Posted by: Rob Hof on September 2, 2008
Google’s about to brief a gazillion of us reporters about its much-discussed Chrome Web browser, now ready for download here. I wrote my initial thoughts yesterday, and you can get the basics with a nifty comic book that explains Chrome with only a few forays into serious geek. While we listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and other classics and trying to divine their significance, we await the demo which I will try to liveblog…. Among others, Google’s own Matt Cutts is also liveblogging, better than I can. Update: Liveblogging didn’t work, but now that I’m on a network that works with our software, here’s my hurried account:
OK, Sundar Pichai, Google's VP of product management, is explaining why Google's bothering to do its own browser. Basically, the Web has really changed a lot from a place to browse pages, literally, to a place where you do some pretty sophisticated applications. You just need a new browser to do this better, as we all know from the limitations in speed and reliability of today's browsers.
Chrome, BTW, stands for the borders of the Web browser window, including the frames, menus, toolbars, and scroll bars. Simplicity is the goal. "The browser should stay out of the way."
They're launching Chrome in 43 languages in 122 countries. In other words, they've been working on this a good long time.
Chrome will be completely open source, so anyone can use it, or the various pieces of it. "If the Web gets better, more people use the Web, and Google benefits," he says. In other words, he's saying this isn't just something that benefits Google alone.
Now a demo of the user experience on Chrome from a couple of Google engineers: First, the tabs to open new windows are now are the very top of the browser. Why? Because they actually are pretty central to using browsers these days. You can drag and drop tabs to create separate windows or drag them back into the main window.
Surprisingly, there's no search box alongside the address bar where you type the URL, unlike other browsers. So now, the address box is also the search box, now called the "omnibox." You can type in "a" and if you commonly go to Amazon.com, that will show up as an immediate option to click to. In the same box, you can also search WITHIN sites, such as Amazon.com.
If you open a new tab, instead of coming up blank as in most browsers, you see a page showing your most-visited sites so you can quickly click to the most likely places you want to go. "This page becomes yours, it's what you want to do," the engineer (whose name I missed) says.
Of course, this raises privacy concerns, otherwise known as "I don't want other people to know I visited these porn sites." So there's an "incognito" window with a guy in sunglasses and overcoat, which strikes me as a little creepy. But anyway. The other guy shows how this works using a search for "toe fungus." Right. But anyway, the idea is you can search privately in this tab, close it, and no one knows what happened in that browser.
They now show how the browser handles music downloads and streaming. You can drag and drop an MP3 onto your desktop so you don't have to mess around with various ways to save music.
You can also create application shortcuts on your desktop for apps like Gmail that you use a lot, so you don't have to go into the browser every time to use them.
Darin Fisher, another tech lead on Chrome, will talk about what's under the hood. (Geek alert again.) He's talking about the frustration, which I encounter every day, of having one browser window or tab crash or hang, taking all your other windows with it. At least Firefox now has a feature that will bring back those windows, but it doesn't solve the problem that crashed the browser in the first place. So Chrome will run each tab entirely separately, so if one tab hangs up, the whole browser doesn't come crashing down. The technology that allows this is the "sandbox," to use a highly technical term (actually, it is a technical term, but one that mercifully describes what it does pretty well).
How does this work? Chrome has a task manager that lets you see which tabs are using the most computing power, which is an indication of what might be slowing your browser experience, or crashing it entirely. Plug-in applications such as Shockwave, which runs Web videos, also are handled independently, so if they misbehave, they can be jettisoned without closing the browser or even the rest of the tab.
Now they're showing how fast the browser is. They have Internet Explorer up in a window, doing a test of average time to load a page: 220 milliseconds. Looks fast. But now Chrome: 77 milliseconds. Noticeably faster. But that is static content and as they're pointing out, dynamic content is common on the Web now.
Pichai says Google has been working on this for more than two years, which I can certainly imagine. He says there's a "huge team" here, in Kirkland (Wash.), and Denmark.
Larry Page, Google's cofounder, now appears. He says he has been using Chrome for quite a while as his primary browser. He used it on a slow, old computer to force the team to make it fast on most computers. He says we're entering a new era in which the pace of browser development is accelerating.
Now the Q&A. First up, somebody asks about privacy aspects of the new browser. Pichai says they tried to come up with new features that are user-friendly while still trying to incorporate privacy concerns.
How does this fit with Android? Pichai says it shares Webkit, V8, and some other code, but will be optimized for mobile, especially the user interface.
Will changes to Webkit go back into the open-source development? Yes.
Is it fair to call Chrome the operating system of Web apps? This gets some laughs. Sergey Brin, who just stepped in wearing red Crocs, says no. But he says he thinks Chrome will allow people to do more online, and not just on a single computer.
What are the plans for handling plug-in applications? Pichai says there's no programming interface for browser extensions yet. Brin says since it's open-source, you can do it yourself (if you're a geek, of course).
Plans for distribution beyond downloads? And why did you decide you needed to do the whole browser yourself? On distribution, Pichai says no specifics yet but will consider ways to distribute it (via agreements with PC makers or others). On why Google is doing this generally, he says Google saw a chance to rewrite the browser from scratch but let others use it. "We hope others pick up good ideas," he says.
What about speedier video, ask John Furrier. These involve plug-ins that will work as they work in other browsers. So it doesn't sound like speed will change much on video in particular.
How long has Chrome been under development? Two years, though Brin says the speculation as far back as 2005 might have prompted Google to consider doing it and found that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea.
What direct benefits to Google will Chrome bring? Is this new ad real estate for Google? Page: Not so much the real estate as improving and speeding the Web experience, so that should help Google a lot?
Why should people switch to IE or Firefox? Brin: "We want to have several browsers out there. Certainly Firefox has made tremendous progress." But IE still has about 80% market share, so he says there should be more alternatives. Basically, he says Chrome will help people be more productive online.
Kara Swisher asks if there's a business here. Page doesn't really answer.
Were you worried about features of IE8, which might favor Microsoft over Google? Page: Again, no real answer I could divine.
Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land asks if Chrome would be a success if IE9 is built on it. Brin: Yes, but not necessary for it to be a success. Page reiterates bottom line: If Google can make the browser faster, that will result in more searches, and Google will benefit.
Will Chrome gains be at expense of Firefox more than IE? Pichai says most people don't even realize there's a choice besides IE. He hopes Chrome will spark interest in all alternatives, including Firefox. Page says Google will continue to support Firefox. "I think we have a great product here, and I think people will use it."