IcoBlog: September 2008

The official Blog of Iconico & SoftwareMarketingResource

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What's the point of Google's Chrome?

So about a week later than everyone else I downloaded the new web browser to be released to the unsuspecting public; Google Chrome. As with most new web developments I have to admit I’m on the jaded side, and I really just downloaded the thing in order to check that all of my sites display ok, but I was left wondering why Google has launched a new web browser. What exactly are they trying to do here?

First thing that I noticed, and you’ll notice, is that it’s fast. Fast to install I mean. I’m used to clicking through an installer’s endless ‘Next’ buttons as part of an installation, but Google makes it really quick. I actually thought that there must be something more to download so I immediately hit the ‘Close’ button and launched it from the desktop, and blam, it’s up and running in a fraction of a second, so top marks there.

Next on to the reason I downloaded, to make sure that all my websites render without any major errors. I dutifully checked them out, and happily everything works without a problem, but I was wondering while I was doing this exactly the cost that having another browser will cost the web design industry in additional quality assurance testing. Chrome is built on WebKit, the same engine that Apple’s Safari runs on, so it should render similarly, and certainly seems to.

The User Interface

After having a quick play with Chrome I did notice some rather nice things about it. The user interface is very clear and simple. The top tab area is 63 pixels high, compared to 93 pixels for Internet Explorer (IE) and 74 pixels to 103 pixels for Firefox depending on whether you have multiple tabs open. Chrome’s menu and tab layout is basically the same as Internet Explorer, only a little space has been saved by having a non-standard title bar to the window.

Chrome has a very friendly start page, showing thumbnails of recent sites that you’ve visited and a selection of recent bookmarks. It’s a good idea and an extension of IE’s multi-tab thumbnail page. The two toolbar buttons on the right are pretty much identical to IE’s ‘Page’ and ‘Tools’ buttons.

Chrome does have an interesting feature called an ‘Incognito’ window. When you launch this you can surf the web without leaving a trace that you’ve done so on your computer. No browser history, cookies or temporary files. So why would you want to do this? Well the answer is clear. Porn. 99% of the time when you don’t want to leave a trace that you’ve visited a website it’s because it’s a porn website, and for the 1% of the rest of you, well, I don’t believe you anyway. Is it a coincidence that the Incognito window includes an icon of a pervert in a dirty trench coat?

All in all, the entire user interface is great. It’s well resolved and thought out, and if you like minimal style then you’ll probably like what they’ve done, but there isn’t really anything revolutionary different there, and no must-have power user features. It’s basically the same as what was started in Firefox 2 and further evolved in IE7.

The Techie Stuff

So as a web designer and developer my thoughts then turned to wondering how hard Chrome would be to write HTML for. Chrome has a ‘developer’ sub menu and we’ve got ourselves a JavaScript debugger, and a JavaScript Console. The debugger is minimal, but works fine, and it’s really a must have for coders. The Console has an HTML tree view and element inspector, and some nice little graphs for resource loading times. There’s also a Task Manager and a memory management page, entitled ‘Stats for Nerds’. They’re right, I doubt I’d ever use it.

Ok so they’ve checked all the web developer boxes, the problem is that all of those boxes have already been checked before with Firefox’s Firebug. Firebug is simply the best HTML inspection tool, and IE has a clone which is pretty close, but not quite as good. There’s also our own WebTools Pro, but that solves a slightly different need. Similarly Chrome’s developer tools are close, but not quite as good as what’s already out there, so why would a web developer want to switch?

A Little History Lesson

If you were to read recent web developer blogs you could quickly come to the conclusion that Internet Explorer is a horrendous web browser and Firefox saved the web by enforcing standards and we should all switch over to use it and spread the gospel according to open source, so help us the W3C!

This was not always the case.

Back in the nineties, and I’m showing my age now, when Internet Explorer 3 came out I maintain this was the single largest leap forward in web browser technology. IE3 had a document object model. It was the first browser that was easily scriptable with JavaScript. Page content reflowed when you resized the window; remember the Netscape page resize hack? Or worse remember the horrible tag that Netscape hung onto? IE3 really pushed the envelope; you could write AJAX for IE3 years before the term was even invented. Yes Microsoft made up some of their own standards, but compared to what was out there it needed doing and we all benefitted from it.

I’m glad the old Netscape died. By the time the core had been totally rewritten, and it really needed to be, IE owned the browser wars and IE5 and IE6 were fine updates. Then Microsoft dropped the ball, and frustration set in that years went past without the same innovations that had happened before.

Firefox filled a vacuum, and answered a new generation of web developer’s frustration at the stagnated IE project. Firefox’s Gecko engine is arguably the best out there, but with IE7 the gap’s been narrowed so that only the nerdiest would really argue the toss. IE8 promises to finally lay that argument to rest. I’m glad we finally got there, but the page rendering engines seem to be becoming much less of an issue, so if we’re past all that then what’s left?

For me the best thing about Firefox is really it’s Plug-ins. I’ve coded Plug-ins for IE and Firefox and IE does loose out. It’s unfortunate but IE falls down precisely because of its age. If Microsoft were to code it all from scratch today we wouldn’t have the multitude of different COM interfaces that have been added in with each release of the product. Microsoft has to keep them in there, there are too many applications on the market that they don’t want to break, and they were extremely careful not to alienate anyone with the IE7 release, which was a very delicate balancing act.

So before last week I’d say that we have two great browsers heading the pack. IE7 with a finally fixed rendering engine, tabbed browsing and installed pretty much everywhere, it’s the people’s choice. Firefox with some excellent expert features, customizations and open source credentials, a power user’s dream.

Both browsers have a clear path forward and are being actively worked on. People are not crying out for a new browser, so why Google Chrome?

Aren’t you forgetting something?

Ok there are more than two browsers, so I’d be remiss not to at least mention a few more.

Opera has been around for years, and has a small but devoted following of users. Much in the same way as I never understood my older brother’s weird friends and their odd tastes in music, I never understood Opera users. It’s a fine browser, and it has allegedly the fastest page renderer out there, but I always find it a little quirky. Occasionally I use it and I don’t dislike it, it works fine, but why switch?

Safari is Apple’s browser of choice and like many things Mac related I find its overt simplicity belies a frustration which comes from actually trying to get things done. If you’ve ever tried to code HTML for Safari it’s a pain, even with the secret ‘debug’ menu revealed. With Firefox running on the Mac there seems little point to it and the recent Safari port to the PC was aimed at iPhone development and not a serious attempt to compete. It undoubtedly has its fans, but Macs always have done.

So, who would use Chrome?

Well looking through Chrome it does have one or two nice little features. It comes with Google Gears installed. Gears is great, a nice solution to running offline JavaScript and Aaron Boodman has convinced me that it’s definitely what we should have in a browser, hey who wouldn’t want a client side lightweight SQL database, neato, but it already comes as a plug-in for IE and Firefox and it hasn’t really taken off. Macromedia didn’t launch a new browser to distribute their Flash plug-in, and it’s now almost ubiquitous, so Gears alone is not a reason for Chrome.

Chrome introduces the idea of an ‘Application Shortcut’. I initially got quite excited about this idea, but all it does is open a website in a window without the navigation and tabs at the top. Microsoft did more with their .hta HTML Applications and they simply never caught on. I’m again left wondering why.

When you install Chrome you’ll notice an unchecked checkbox entitled ‘Help make Google Chrome better by automatically sending usage statistics and crash reports to Google.’ Could this be one of the reasons that Google made the browser?

Back in the times of IE6 a lot of people had the Google toolbar installed. It had a great popup blocker and that too had a ‘usage statistics’ checkbox. Then when Firefox launched it came with the default search set to Google. Google paid millions in advertizing Firefox, including full page ads in the New York Times. It’s pretty obvious why; they were going to make that revenue back by ensuring that every search went through Google, and it did.

IE7 has now followed suit with a search box and the Google toolbar is a lot less useful than it was in the past. IE and Firefox now both have all the old Google toolbar functionality built in. Google has the search results but not, it would seem, the usage data.

I’m not suggesting that Google’s motives are less than pure, but I do think it’s a factor here. Again I keep asking myself who would want to use Chrome, and I actually think that it’s aimed squarely at the general public and not power users who will stick with whatever they already have, namely Firefox.

The problem is that the general public don’t go downloading new browsers. Firefox had this problem and is forever playing second fiddle as most people plain just don’t care as long as they can browse the web with IE.

So who can Chrome take market share from? Firefox users are either too techie to be interested, or too left leaning political to want to use a non open source browser. Internet Explorer users are either those that don’t care, or the very small minority like myself who use IE because they know it inside out and understand how it ‘thinks’ and don’t want to change.

It seems that the real reasons behind this new browser from Google will be revealed to us over the next few months. I’m going to watch this space carefully because right now all the reasons for Chrome don’t quite add up. I’m betting there’s some other plan by Google that we’re not aware of yet that will reveal why Google has spent so much on a great web browser that nobody really wants.

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