Google released a beta version of its new browser, Google Chrome, a few weeks ago. Some of us here at futurethink have been using it since its launch, so we thought we’d put together some first impressions and thoughts.
But first, some background. Chrome launched at the beginning of September, and was publicized with the launch of a little comic book that details its birth and development. The comic is an entertaining read, if, of course, you have any interest in how a Web browser works. If not, here’s the abridged version (and an overview of some of Chrome’s key features):
- Google realized that most browsers today are evolutionary—built back when the Web was a simpler place. And Google realized that, hey, the Web is a very different place than it was 10 or 15 years ago, so it decided to build a browser from scratch, and optimize it for the Web we know (and love) today.
- Google decided to make the browser open source, so that programmers and developers could create tools and add-ons for it (like Mozilla’s Firefox). It also decided that the beta version should be simple, stable, and solid, even if that means it’s light on the features. Google Gears is the API that allows developers and programmers to create new applications for Chrome. Incidentally, it also opens up the formula for how Chrome was built, meaning anyone can take features from Chrome and add them to another competing browser. This is part of the deal with anything open-source; but Google hopes that developers will get to work at making Chrome and its competitors better, faster, and more stable over time, a win for Google since a happy Web is a lucrative Web.
- Tabbed browsing, Google realized, was an important innovation in Web browsing. So they decided to take the idea and make it better. Chrome’s tabs run independently of one another—sort of like separate windows, except they’re consolidated in terms of layout just like the tabs we use in Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer. This means that if one tab crashes, the rest of them remain stable. You can also drag Tabs around or create separate windows out of existing tabs. You can also open a “task manager” window to force-close an unresponsive tab, just like you would do on a computer’s operating system.
- To make life simpler, the URL bar and the search bar are consolidated. You can choose your default search engine (though Google would prefer you used Google, of course). If you type a full URL into the box, it goes to the Web page you’ve requested. If you type an invalid URL or a bunch of words, the tab will go to a search results page with suggestions. While this dually-functional URL bar is a major opportunity for Google to squeeze out the search competition, the very respectfully (probably to avoid anti-competitive lawsuits as well) ask users to select a default search engine when installing the browser and present all options equally.
- The pop-up blocker has been rethought in a very good way. Where many browsers today block pop-ups and sort of hide the fact that a pop-up has been blocked, Chrome actually opens the pop-up, but displays it as a little taskbar-sized tab at the bottom of the window. It’s easy to see that a pop-up is present, and if that pop-up is an integral part of how a site works, it’s easy to drag the window up and into full view. This eliminates the need to enable/disable pop-up blockers as you travel the Web.
- To combat the influx of malware and phishing sites that have cropped up over the years, Google built sophisticated alerting systems into the browser. It leveraged its web-crawling expertise to create a warning system that alerts users to malware or phishing on potentially harmful Websites.
So now for some early impressions. Overall, it’s a great browser. It has a simple, clean interface and it does seem to run a little faster than Firefox (I can’t speak to IE or Safari). The “beta” is definitely apparent, even a month into Chrome’s release. Tabs do occasionally crash, and certain plug-ins for Java and Flash just don’t seem to work quite right. I find myself turning back to Firefox for certain tasks, just because it’s a little bit smoother. But for most of my browsing needs, Chrome is great.
I’m a big fan of Google’s other products (GMail, iGoogle, Google Reader, Google Docs, Google Notebook… the list goes on), and all of these sites work wonderfully in Chrome. The tabbed feature is also really nice, though most users won’t notice too much of a difference compared to other browsers, I suspect. A neat feature, however, is that when you open a new tab, rather than rendering a blank screen, it shows your 12 most frequently visited sites and a short list of recent bookmarks so you can click to somewhere you’re likely to go rather than typing something into the URL bar. Small detail, but nice.
The URL bar is a major difference between Chrome and its competition. While I had grown used to clicking into a Google Search bar at the top right of my Firefox window to type a query, I quickly came to like the simplicity of a single field atop each tab. The bar will automatically bring up an elegantly-non-distracting list of possible queries and bookmarks for you to choose from as soon as you start typing; eliminating the need to type in full URLs or queries much of the time. Being that Google is actively tracking your browsing history, this bar is particularly useful (if a little creepy).
And this brings us to Chrome’s major potential defect—its “big brother-like” tracking. Google is somewhat notorious for tracking users’ habits and activities in order to serve up relevant ads and content. While I tend not to take issue with this (Google has to make a living somehow, right?), many people are weary of anything that tracks and catalogs their behavior. While Firefox allowed me to set my preferences to “clear private data” every time I close the Window, Chrome has no such setting. Users have to manually clear browsing history, download history, cookies, and the like; or alternatively browse in “Incognito” mode, which opens up a new window (tinted black, naturally) that doesn’t save or track any data or history.
Google has also given itself some generous rights in Chrome’s Terms of Service, claiming “a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.” This technically means that Google owns this very blog post, which I’m writing through Chrome. While it’s unlikely that Google would ever actually capitalize on these terms; it’s a bit off-putting to know that these terms were ever outlined in the first place.
Privacy concerns aside, Chrome is snazzy little browser that many users will come to enjoy, I suspect. It will certainly force Microsoft, Mozilla, and Apple to do things a little differently, which is good for the Internet-using public as a whole. The browser also represents a tremendous opportunity for Google in the form of data. As it collects and aggregates and analyzes the mountains of data related to Web browsing, it is gaining incredible insight into who its users are. Google is learning what we read, what we write, who we communicate with, what we’re buying… it’s getting a pretty robust picture of every Chrome user by standing in the background and cataloging Web activity. This means that every ad it serves up alongside search results and in GMail can grow more and more relevant, garnering more and more clicks, earning more and more money for Google.
Chrome is also a great “platform” off of which users can run “programs” like GMail, Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, and more. If Chrome proves itself to be a safe, reliable, secure platform for these applications, Web-based applications may become increasingly dominant. Remember that we’re also entering a world of “netbooks” and mobile computing where much of our data and activity reside “in the cloud.”
What’s more, Chrome serves as the defacto browser for its Android mobile operating system, which will be available later this year on the new T-Mobile G1 (aka the Google Phone). All this means that Google is poised to attain Microsoft-like dominance in the computing world over the next few years as we untether ourselves from our operating systems and desktops for the freedom and convenience of “the cloud.” Yes, this transition has been in the making for some time now, and Google has been gradually coaxing us along this path all the while. This is a great example of how Google, “the innovator’s innovator” uses new products and business models to create completely new terrain upon which the competition is simply unprepared to compete. The lesson to learn here is that your customers, whoever they are, often don’t know what they want (even if you ask them). They don’t know what they don’t have, and they often don’t know what can be done. That’s your job, as an innovator. And if you’re breaking ground, a smart way to go about it is by releasing early and inviting feedback, something Google is great at doing. They didn’t wait until Chrome was bug-free and 100% ready for launch—they released it as soon as it was safe and stable enough for the average user, and have been providing updates, patches, and fixes all along.
So, overall, if you’re a PC user (sorry Apple folks, Chrome doesn’t work with Mac OSX just yet), I would definitely recommend downloading Chrome and taking it for a spin. We’re curious to see what you think.