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

Next steps

Over the last 10 months I’ve been working 3 days a week at Xero helping out with product strategy and developing internal processes as we’ve grown quickly.

One of the things I’ve focused on is establishing a measurement culture and making sure we’re making product decisions for the right reasons. It’s great to see these things starting to happen.

I’ve enjoyed being able to help shape a new company as it moves from startup to becoming established in the market.

But, now it’s time for something different …

Next week I’m in the US for ETech. I’ve kept the week after that free, so hopefully I’ll meet some interesting people over there who will help me fill those days. If you’re going to be there please feel free to drop me an email.

After that I’m planning to spread my time around a few different things, including working with some of the other companies I’ve invested in. I’ll look forward to writing some more about those here over the next few months.

So, exciting times!

Who owns your bank transaction data?

Wesabe, which is a personal finance community site, have been doing some really interesting stuff lately.

Here are two recent announcement which have caught my attention:

The first makes it much easier to get your bank data from your bank into Wesabe. The second makes it easier to get your bank data out of Wesabe and into whatever other format/software you want to use.

Put these two things together and Wesabe have effectively provided a complete API for bank transaction data which works independantly of the banks. You could argue it works despite the banks!

This is interesting. Wesabe take the customer-centric view that your data wants to be free where as the banks take the view that your data is an asset that they own and should try and protect and in some cases even charge for.

At the end of the day, whose data is it?

Marc Hedlund, the founder of Wesabe, talks more about this in a recent O’Reilly Radar post:

“We’ve gotten a lot of interest in the Wesabe API in large part because the bank and credit card industries are so tight-fisted with their data.”

“Other companies have done well with their APIs by owning a large set of data and letting people at it through the web; we’re doing well by liberating data from the Phantom Zone of the bank web sites, and making it available to the people who already own it — the banks’ customers.”

“It’s easy for us to offer value to our API users since the companies that currently store financial data do such a fantastic job of putting up barbed wire around it, in the form of archive access fees, download fees, obsolete data formats, and just plain bad programming. Making all of that data available, consistent, and free is value enough.”

From: http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2007/07/making_the_web.html

Of course bank transaction data is a core part of Xero too. One of the benefits we have over traditional software which is installed on the customers computer is that we can easily interface directly with the banks and import the customers data directly into Xero, saving them the hassle of visiting their internet banking and downloading an export file and then importing it into their accounting software.

Each of the banks have responded to this opportunity differently. Some are happy to provide free access to the data. Others want to charge us a big fee to develop the interface. Others want to clip the ticket on every transaction that gets transmitted. All of them insist on clunky offline registration processes.

The fees are especially surprising given that all of them provide free access to the same data via their online banking websites. I would have thought that they would welcome the opportunity to take load off their servers, but apparently not.

All of the banks have adapted, eventually, to the Web 1.0 world and have taken cost out of their business in the process. It will be interesting to watch as they make the transition to Web 2.0. Those that don’t might find that services such as Wesabe and Xero route the customers around them.

What other examples can you think of where traditional businesses profit from the fact that their data is hard to get to, which keeps you going back to them and allows them to clip the ticket each time? As Marc points out this is where opportunities exist for start-ups.

UPDATE (20-Sept): Fred Wilson, a VC investor in Wesabe, adds his own thoughts on this topic.

Xero on Public Address Radio

A couple of weeks ago Russell Brown from Public Address visited the office to talk to us about what we’re up to at Xero.

The segment includes an interview with me and also with Darryl Gray who is the brand manager at Xero. It aired on Radio Live last week and has now been posted on their blog for you to consume at your leisure …

http://publicaddress.net/system/public-address-radio/pa-radio-ground-xero/?p=23823#post23823

Enjoy!

PS This post is taken from the Xero Blog. If you want to keep up with what we’re doing at Xero check it out. :-)

What’s next?

Now that the formalities are out of the way I can say a bit more about what I’m going to do next.

I start a new part-time role next week with Rod and the team at Xero.

I will be head of product strategy. Rod posted earlier today about how they (we!) are dealing with prioritisation and product development, which explains quite nicely where this role fits into the bigger picture.

I’m excited about this new challenge. It’s an excellent opportunity for me to apply what I’ve learnt at Trade Me to a global product.

Rod has put together an amazing team and I’m going to enjoy being part of it.

I’m also looking forward to having time to get involved in some other ventures either as an advisor or investor. I’ve been pretty quiet in this respect up until now, but I have my eyes open.

Because Xero is in the middle of the IPO process I can’t say too much more than that at this point, but needless to say I will be posting more here in the coming weeks.

So, stay tuned.

Hamish Carter

“If God invented marathons to keep people from doing anything more stupid, the triathlon must have taken Him completely by surprise”
P.Z. Pearce

Hamish Carter has decided to pull the plug on his legendary triathlon career.

Here is what he had to say in the NZ Herald about winning at the Athens Olympics in ’04:

“It was one of those experiences so massive and powerful that every time I think about it, it gives me goosebumps.”

Mate, thinking about that race gives me goosebumps, and I was just watching from the other side of the world, so I can only imagine how inspirational that memory is for you.

It’s exciting to see you joining Rod and the guys at Xero (which is starting to emerge from the shadows this week). Good luck with Act II.

UPDATE: Rod has more details.