When Google released the first version of its Chrome web browser last year, it was big news. Heck, virtually everything Google does is big news, that's just the state of the industry right now and a measure of the company's influence.

Back then, however, it wasn't clear we needed another web browser. Chrome would be based on WebKit, the web rendering engine previously picked by Apple, but a relatively unknown technology. And Chrome would be stripped of many of the end user niceties that bog down some competing browsers. Instead, it would focus almost exclusively on performance, allowing Google's web-based applications to perform as well as possible.

\[ Read my initial reaction to Google Chrome. \]

What a difference a year makes. Since debuting in beta form in September 2008, Chrome has undergone some amazing transformations. It's still basically the same browser, featuring a stripped-down default user interface and amazing performance. But Chrome is in the midst of its fourth major version update over this time frame, which is partly explained by how many improvements were needed and partly by the fact that Google has branched development so that it can simultaneously work on two versions at once.

\[ Hands on with Google Chrome Beta chronicles the first Chrome release. \]

 

Chrome 1.0 shipped exactly a year ago today. This was the first stable release of the browser, and it incorporated all the basic features such as the minimalist UI with integral tab support. Google followed that up in rapid succession with Chrome 2, which added a full-screen mode and better performance, among other changes, in May 2009. Version 3 hit just five months later, in October 2009, adding another performance bump, a nice integrated theming system, and support for native HTML 5 video and audio functionality.

Google Chrome 4
Google Chrome 4.

As I write this, Chrome 4 is in beta, but as is so often the case with Google products, what we see today represents the eventual stable version of the browser, so it's fair game to evaluate from a functional standpoint. The big deal this time around is a formal infrastructure for browser extensions, and as we've seen before, Google's approach to what is elsewhere a common browser feature is both unique and well designed.

Google Chrome 4
Chrome extensions are programmed like web pages and accessed via a web page.

Chrome's extension system, in fact, was planned as far back as late 2008, and Google announced its plans for the system at the Google I/O event in May 2009 that spawned Google Wave. (See my first look at Google Wave.) Chrome extensions are designed using web technologies--HTML, CSS, Javascript, and so on--with which developers are already familiar, so they're easy to write, as evidenced by the vast library of useful extensions that's already available.

Google Chrome 4
Many extensions are exposed through the toolbar, like this nifty Twitter front-end.

I've been testing beta versions of Chrome 4 with extensions for over a month now, and for the past few weeks or so, Chrome has been my primary browser. As always, it's proven to be fast and reliable. But with version 4, it's also highly extensible. This functionality puts the browser on par with Firefox in my view, and well ahead of IE in the areas that should matter most to users. Whether this usage continues remains to be seen--after an initial flurry of excitement after the browser's initial release last year, I ended up back with Firefox and IE--but I think Chrome 4 may just have what it takes. Certainly, it's worth a look or, if you dismissed it to readily in the past, another look.