A Google Web browser has been rumored for so long that it's now part of the fabric of the Web. The original rumors had Google partnering with Mozilla to create a Google-branded version of Firefox. Then, earlier this year, the rumors switched gears, and the online giant reportedly constituted a "GBrower" team tasked with creating the Google Browser. This time, however, the Google Browser would be built on top of WebKit, the open source Web browser engine that powers the lackluster Safari (a product so bad that Apple must distribute it like spyware). WebKit itself isn't horrible, however, and it also provides back-end services for well-regarded technologies like Adobe AIR and Google's Android mobile platform.
On Monday, September 1, 2008, the rumors became reality. The company issued a 38-page comic book describing the browser (seriously) and then provided a blog post describing their intentions. Tomorrow, on Tuesday, September 2nd, they will release a beta of the Windows version of the browser. It looks like this:
Here's what they're doing.
Web applications, not Web pages
As Google notes, "All of us at Google spend much of our time working inside a browser. We search, chat, email and collaborate in a browser. And in our spare time, we shop, bank, read news and keep in touch with friends -- all using a browser. Because we spend so much time online, we began seriously thinking about what kind of browser could exist if we started from scratch and built on the best elements out there."
There are two ways to look at this. First, yes, Google is correct: Increasingly, users are turning to Web applications--no longer the "Web pages" of the past--for both work and play. Web-based applications, too, are increasing in complexity and sophistication. "These things didn't exist when the first Web browsers were created," the aforementioned comic book notes. Sure.
But that, too, must be seen as a not-so-subtle dig at Microsoft. The Internet as we know it today certainly didn't exist when Microsoft first released Windows, after all. Yet somehow Microsoft has been able to adapt Windows over the years, overhauling the underlying technology is major ways on several occasions. If Microsoft can keep something as complex as Windows relevant almost 25 years after its inception, why can't something as simple as a Web browser application be similarly updated? Arguably, this is exactly what's happened, actually. Today's IE looks like nothing like IE 1.0. And Firefox 3 bears little technical relation to its Mosaic and Netscape predecessors.
In this light, Google's initial rationale for creating a new browser "from scratch" seems more than a little self-serving. Clearly, the existing browser makers--primarily Microsoft and Mozilla--are doing something that runs contrary to Google's bottom line.
A better browser
So what's wrong with today's browsers? What is it, exactly, that Google can suddenly offer that Mozilla and Microsoft can't, even after over a decade of experience, each, in this market? Here's what Google says is wrong with today's browsers, along with a helping serving of sarcasm:
"Browsers need to be more stable. When you're writing an important email or editing a document, a browser crash is a big deal." That one is pretty humorous when you think about it. Most people, today, use Windows applications to write emails and edit documents. In Google's very Web-centric view, however, these tasks occur in the browser. (Everything does, right?) So browser stability is suddenly much more important.
I'd point out, by the way, that both Mozilla and Microsoft have made huge gains in browser stability in recent releases, and that browser stability is not exactly a major issue today. Firefox 3 (see my review), for example, includes a crash recovery feature. And IE 8 Beta 2 (see my review) goes Firefox one better by preventing browser crashes all together thanks to unique processes for each tab.
This latter feature--isolated processes for each tab--is identical to what Google is doing with Google Chrome. "By keeping each tab in an isolated 'sandbox,' we are able to prevent one tab from crashing another and provide improved protection from rogue sites," the company says. Just like IE 8.
"[Browsers] need to be more secure," Google says. "Browsers need architectural changes to disadvantage malware." Hey, if anyone knows how to write a good Windows application, it's gotta be those guys at Google, right? After all, they do everything on the Web.
Chrome will also support a privacy mode called "Incognito" that works exactly like InPrivate in IE 8. "Nothing that occurs in that window is ever logged on your computer," Google says.
Too many features
"We want browsers to find that sweet spot between too many features and too few," Google writes, "with a clean, simple, and efficient user interface." Google, like Apple, knows best, it seems. I do happen to like the Spartan efficiency of most of Google's Web services. But then I don't consider Firefox or IE to be bloated.
Google presses its case as follows: "To most people, it isn't the browser that matters. It's only a tool to run the important stuff--the pages, sites and applications that make up the Web. Like the classic Google homepage, Google Chrome is clean and fast. It gets out of your way and gets you where you want to go." The "it gets out of the way" language must be deliberate: This is how Apple fanatics describe the Mac OS X user interface, and it's a deliberate snub at Windows, which is seen as more bloated and complex and most decidedly in-your-face.
A new user interface
On a related note, Google has engineered Chrome so that the main UI, so to speak, is the tab. By moving the tabs visually above the address bar, Google designed a browser in which each tab has its own set of controls and its own address bar. (Or "URL box" in Google-speak.) Actually, the official name is omnibox because it handles more than just URLs. "It also offers suggestions for searches, top pages you've visited before, pages you haven't visited but are popular, and more" Google says. I would point out that this is how the IE 8 Smart Address Bar works as well.
Tabs aren't just a visual nicety. Pop-up windows are confined to the tabs in which they were created, which sounds like a neat idea. And you can drag tabs from one browser window to another if you'd like.
Google is also rethinking the browser home page. Instead of a single static page, or a group of loaded tabs, the Chrome home page, by default, will show you a new "tab page" that includes your nine most visited pages on the left, in an IE-Quick Tab-like view, and the sites you search on most on the right, in list format. "It's the pages you were going to type into the URL box anyway," Google notes. However, I'd point out that Microsoft frequently gets in trouble when it tries to read the user's mind. I suspect many people won't like this feature, but then I also suspect you can turn it off.
Standalone Web applications
Google stole an idea from the Mozilla playbook by allowing Web applications (like Gmail or Google Calendar) to run in special Google Chrome windows that lack the standard browser controls. These streamlined, or "chromeless," windows will appear a bit more like native applications as a result. "If you can just ignore the browser, then we've done a good job," Google says. The "browser" in this case being IE or Mozilla, presumably.
Google is also building its Gears offline technology into Chrome. "Gears basically adds an API to your browser, an extension that improves its capabilities," Google notes, apparently forgetting about the "too many features" warning noted above. But seriously, Gears is good stuff, and it's going to make Web applications like Gmail and Google Calendar all the more useful.
Google Chrome will be a "fully open source" browser. You know, like Firefox.
This means that others can build on top of Chrome and create their own products. Google, too, notes that it is taking technology from open source projects like WebKit and Firefox as well. "It's important to help all browsers become more powerful," Google claims.
It's pretty clear that the sudden and unexpected release of the Chrome browser was inspired by Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2. So many features here read like features of IE 8 Beta 2, and my guess is that the Chrome guys were shocked to see how close they are.
Google says that the release of the Chrome beta for Windows tomorrow (Monday) is just the first step. "This is just the beginning -- Google Chrome is far from done. We're releasing this beta for Windows to start the broader discussion and hear from you as quickly as possible. We're hard at work building versions for Mac and Linux too, and will continue to make it even faster and more robust."
Naturally, I'll be testing this browser as soon as I get my hands on it and I'll upload some shots tomorrow. Until then, we can only muse on what's to come and how this will shake up the browser landscape. But Google has the market power to make WebKit a major player, equal in status to IE and Firefox going forward. This is something Apple could never do, given its smaller user base. But Apple will surely benefit from the sudden influx of WebKit users and contributions as well. So while Safari may never be a major force per se, WebKit most certainly will be, and that should be enough to keep Apple's browser alive.
Can the Web support three major Web browser rendering engines? That's unclear. It seems like we were consolidating down to two for a while there, and certainly no one wants to go back to the multiple-browser-engine silliness of the late 1990's. But if anyone knows the Web, it's Google. And while their justifications for the Chrome browser may be a bit light, and more than a bit self-serving, my suspicion is that they'll make it work.