Thoughts on Google Chrome

Ben GoodgerWhen I was in San Francisco earlier this year I caught up with Ben Goodger, who I first me when he was in Wellington to speak at Webstock.  He kindly took some time to show me around Mountain View and we had a nice Mexican lunch at one of his regular hang-outs.

We talked about lots of things, but exactly what he was working on wasn’t one of them.

He said he wasn’t working on Firefox any more.  And, I saw that he was running Visual Studio in a VM on his Mac.

But, I didn’t press him beyond that as he was obviously reluctant to say much at that point.

Today we all find out: Google Chrome

Even before it was officially announced there was a lot of buzz about this.  There is already a decent Wikipedia page with a good summary of the various features that are included in this initial release.

Here are my thoughts about this:

The rise and rise of WebKit

The number and variety of browsers that web developers need to consider has grown considerably in the last couple of years – IE7 has become the most widely used browser, although there are still plenty of people using IE6, Firefox has been steadily ticking up, and Safari has doubled (albeit from a very low base) probably on the back of people switching to OS X.  IE8 is on the horizon.  And, now this.

These are the most recent browser stats I have from Trade Me (from July 2008):

Browser Market Share
IE 7 54.2%
IE 6 23.1%
Firefox 2 15.6%
Safari 3.3%
Firefox 3 0.9%
All Others 2.9%

Those sites that don’t take Safari seriously at its current level may need to re-evaulate on the back of this announcement, as Google Chrome is based on the same WebKit foundation as used by Safari (and the iPhone).

Steve Job’s decision to open-source WebKit in 2005 is looking smarter and smarter.

Who said the browser wars were over?

Splendid Isolation

The Google engineers have made a big deal in this annoucement about each tab having its own isolated process and memory space and the performance benefits that will come from this design – most notably when one tab dies it won’t take the whole browser down with it.

It’s true that this is one of the big weaknesses of Firefox, especially when it’s running on an OS that doesn’t need to be re-booted too often. :-)

But, I wonder if in time the isolation under the hood won’t pale in comparison to the isolation options presented to users.

By selecting the document options (immediately to the right of the address bar omni bar in Chrome) and choosing “Create application shortcut” from the menu you can quickly and effortlessly create a single instance browser for your favourite web applications.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been experimenting with something similar using Fluid on OS X (another browser which uses WebKit).

I have created separate applications for many of the web apps I use the most: Google Reader, Google Docs, Xero, WordPress, etc.

I’ve found various reasons for doing this…

Because each site is running in a separate app I have far fewer problems with the browser leaking memory or crashing.  I also don’t tend to leave Firefox running for days on end as much as I used to, as most of the sites I tend to leave open are elsewhere.

Performance is another.  Apps which use a lot of Javascript like Xero seem to run much faster on Fluid than in Firefox.  The Javascript environment in Chrome, which they are calling V8, promises to be even faster still.

Fluid also lets you customise each application – with a nice icon (which shows in the dock – allowing you to navigate directly to the site), user scripts (using GreaseKit) and other options, such as whether to display the address bar, which URLs are allowed etc.

For example, with Nik from Code To Customer I created a Xero application with a high-resolution icon and a simple script which shows the count of unreconciled transactions on the dock when the app is running.  This now feels much more like a native OS X app.

If you’re a Xero and Mac user and you’d like to try this out: download the application and user script (the script needs to be installed manually once you’ve run the app – start with Command-Alt-N and follow your nose).  I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.

Google Chrome seems to just use the favicon, which looks pretty ugly.  Perhaps they could support an alternative link in the header to a higher resolution icon to use in this case? UPDATE: they do, see below.

I’ve even created a Fluid app for the web-based control panel on my home NAS, which broke horribly when I upgraded to Firefox 3.

In Firefox…

In Fluid…

Why are single instance applications important?

Lots of non-technical users don’t differentiate between their browser and the sites they visit in the browser.  To them the “blue e” is the internet and Google is the new http://.

How else do you explain the popularity of sites like YahooXtra and MSN NZ, other than that people don’t realise that they can change the default home page on their browser?

For those of you who run your own site, look at your referral logs and notice how many people type your URL into a search engine.  If they had a good mental model of their browser wouldn’t it make more sense to use the address bar?

My prediction… look out for icons for all of the different Google apps on a desktop near you soon (or dock if you’re one of the cool kids).

And, if you have your own site, you should be thinking about how to package it into an application.

A little bit of personality goes a long way

I’ve linked to a number of great cartoonists here, including Hugh McLeod, Jessica Hagy, xkcd, Scott Adams, HowToons, and Savage Chickens.

Add Scott McCloud to that list (see: scottmccloud.com).

The cartoon book they have put together to announce the launch and describe some of the design decisions behind Chrome is really well done and well worth a read if you haven’t already taken the time.

Perhaps this is what all technical documentation should look like?

Is there anybody in New Zealand who can do this sort of thing?  If so I’d like to talk to them.

Using the engineers who built the browser as the characters is a nice touch too, and I’m sure a nice ego boost to those involved (many of the same people appear in person in this video)

They have also managed to strike a good balance with their user interface.

The blue background differentiates it from other apps and makes the tabs stand out.

They have definitely gone for the “less is more” approach, which is great.

“I have to admit, Google Chrome has one of the simplest — and the least attractive — UIs I’ve seen in a while. I didn’t realize how much I rather liked the color that the icons in most toolbars lend my apps until faced with the Spartan blue tagged interface that Chrome opens with.”

Barbara Krasnoff

Here’s how the “chrome” part of the various browsers look in Windows Vista (via VMWare):

Internet Explorer 7…

Firefox 3…

Chrome…

When you see these side-by-side you realise how putting the tabs on top is a great design decision (although some credit should go to the Opera team for pioneering that approach).

Also, look out for the “stats for nerds” link on Task Manager :-)

But…

Just because Google builds it doesn’t mean they will necessarily come.

Many of the problems it solves are not problems that many people know they have.  Is it really 10x better for those people?

I remember web developers getting very excited when Firefox first launched.  Finally a browser to replace Internet Explorer, we all thought.

While that may have been broadly achieved amongst technical types, it’s not true at all for the general population (see: We’re Not Normal).

Firefox 1.0 launched in January 2005 (a long time ago now, eh?)  By August 2006 it had achieved just over 11% market share in NZ and, as per the numbers above, has since grown to around 16%.  While this is a huge number of users it’s not really the predicted global domination.

I think it was Blake Ross (one of the other original Firefox guys) who said that he appreciated Internet Explorer, because how else would people download Firefox!

He was joking, obviously, but there is an element of reality in that statement.

You could probably argue that 16% is the proportion of general internet population who have ready access to a geek to upgrade their browser for them.  Everybody else is blissfully unaware. :-)

What market share do you think Chrome will achieve?

And, how much of that will be at the expense of Firefox?

UPDATE (12-Sept): Ben got in touch with some more information about adding custom icons when creating application shortcuts in Chrome…

You actually can specify larger images to be used in your application
shortcuts when the user chooses the menu in Chrome:
http://www.google.com/chrome/intl/en/webmasters-faq.html#customshortcuts

In addition, you can write script in your page so you can offer UI to
create the shortcuts yourself using Gears:
http://code.google.com/apis/gears/api_desktop.html

Hope this is useful info!

-Ben

21 comments on “Thoughts on Google Chrome

  1. Nik Wakelin says:

    If anyone has strong javascript-fu and can figure out how to get an AJAX Request going inside Fluid, I’m all ears. :)

    (It’s meant to use Greasemonkey, but I can’t seem to use the Greasemonkey approach to XHR).

  2. Glen Barnes says:

    “Steve Job’s decision to open-source WebKit in 2005 is looking smarter and smarter.”

    It wasn’t really his decision to make. WebKit came out of Konqueror the KDE browser which was already open sourced. I always liked Konqueror when I ran linux as my primary browser – It was fast, accurate and it just worked.

    So what was smart was choosing a great foundation to build Safari on.

    Glen

  3. Ben says:

    I’ve been playing around with Chrome today and am a convert… so that is actually one loss for IE rather than a cannibalization from Firefox (it feels soo good to be out of the closet). Doesn’t play as nicely with Outlook web access (surprise), so I’ll be heading to IE for that, but otherwise I’m happy as Larry. Will be interesting to see the gears/addons that will be inevitably be coming. Love that it is doing an on-the-fly spell check as I type this.

    Re diffusion of Chrome… I’ll be watching the stats too. They have a number of things in their favour: seamless switching, real-estate on the front page of Google.com (I’d be surprised if they don’t push it heavily there), an established affiliate network (get paid for every install that originates from your site) and a small army of people with AJAX-heavy sites that may just want to push browsers with the V8 engine for their own benefit. And they are releasing at a time when many people are (soon?) going to be changing browsers via a windows update to IE8 whether they like it or not. It might be surprising how many non-geeks make the switch.

    BTW, you probably already know this, but your comment entry box doesn’t render properly – right side is cut off by the right sidebar.

  4. stuart says:

    On Windows you can right click on your application shortcuts and go into the properties and then click the Change Icon button to customise the application icon. Are you able to share your Xero icon?

  5. patrick says:

    i’m willing to try it out just to see if it works more efficiently than FireFox… if it’s faster than Firefox and isn’t IE, then i’ll use it

  6. Steve says:

    @patrick

    I’m over that asswell. If its faster then FF and IE, i’ll use it right a way

  7. nursarahlam says:

    I am testing Chrome as well at the moment..can’t tell right now if it is better than FF3 but if it is great then I might use it as well.

  8. ghepting says:

    Poor firefox… After all you’ve done for us, Google comes by and takes a bite out of your inflating usage percentage. =(

    Hopefully they will market their “supperior” browser to the general public better than Firefox has (not that their campaign wasn’t extremely successful in the tech-savvy audience).

  9. I really like Chrome for browsing sites in a fast way.
    I hope Google will add more features in the future.
    great artical

  10. Dean says:

    Rowan,

    I have a cartoonist and technical writing capability to put together cartoon based user manuals, cartoon books for you, lets talk.

    Dean

  11. @stuart

    The icon is actually part of the zip file I linked to.

    You’ll notice that it’s a bit fuzzy over 128px – this is the best quality logo that I could get from the Xero site.

    It’s an OS X icon file (so .icns extension). You may need to use something like this to convert to Windows format: http://www.gdgsoft.com/gconvert/macos_icons.aspx

    I hope that the Xero guys won’t mind this?? :-)

  12. Kristin says:

    Super super fast! Loving it. I like how with chrome you don’t need to scroll down the address bar once you’ve typed in [part] of a url to select it, just type and press enter, as it’s already highlighted. This feature might even help move non-tech users away from their mouse. Thanks for the splendid isolation tips.

  13. Zef says:

    Personally I’m bored with the current browsers and Google chrome is too like a clone of the rest with a few tweaks. I look forward to something radically different like the experiments over at Mozilla Labs http://labs.mozilla.com/projects/concept-series/

  14. Jason says:

    The .ico format supports having multiple different resolution icons within the same file. I can create icons that are 96 x 96 pixels in Visual Studio — does Fluid recognise icons in the favicon.ico that are larger than the standard 16×16 that most people use?

  15. @Zef

    The Aurora concept looks great.

    These remind me of the concept cars that are rolled out for the Motor Shows each year but never seem to make it into production.

    I suspect that there is a big overlap between the people who would like to use a browser like this and people who are comfortable using a command line interface.

  16. @Jason

    By default Fluid uses the favicon.ico file just like Chrome, but provides an option when you create the single-instance browser to replace with your own icon file.

    It will be interesting to see if sites start to add larger files sizes to their favicon for this purpose.

  17. Steven says:

    I think the share of the marketplace Chrome will initially come from Firefox, but they could also get a share of Explorer in a way Firefox doesn’t because the non-geek crowd know Google, they have no idea who Mozilla are, unless (as you said) they know a geek.

  18. Nigel says:

    I never bought into firefox, in my experience, it didn’t do anything radically better, faster, or different. Chrome on the other hand, is noticeably much faster. I think they will get good word of mouth because I’m telling everyone and I’m sure I’m not alone :)

  19. [...] the last few days i have found screeds of items on the new Google Chrome. Rowan Simpson has taken the application view point further with some interesting results inlcuding a great Xero [...]

  20. Some further info from Ben…

    You actually can specify larger images to be used in your application
    shortcuts when the user chooses the menu in Chrome:

    http://www.google.com/chrome/intl/en/webmasters-faq.html#customshortcuts

    In addition, you can write script in your page so you can offer UI to
    create the shortcuts yourself using Gears:

    http://code.google.com/apis/gears/api_desktop.html

    Hope this is useful info!

    -Ben

  21. [...] as I’ve mentioned previously I’m a fan of using Fluid to create site-specific browser based apps.  I currently have [...]

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