Make no mistake: Google's new Chrome Web browser beta is a shot directly across Microsoft's bow, and the most obvious statement yet by Google that it intends to take on the software giant in new and potentially earth-shattering ways. Back in the mid-1990's, we were treated to the somewhat humorous notion that Netscape's Web browser would someday evolve into a platform that would threaten Windows. For its part, Microsoft took that possibility so seriously that it wiped Netscape right off the map, using tactics that some would charitably describe as illegal.
This time around, though, there's no joke. Cloud computing is a reality, and for a growing generation of users, computing is something that happens online and, increasingly, with mobile devices instead of traditional PCs. And Google's right there in the thick of things, not just with Chrome, but also with a suite of Web products and services and, soon, the Android mobile platform. This is what's known as a wakeup call in the industry. And Microsoft, that phone is ringing for you.
I'm not going to get into a debate about cloud computing right now. I think so much of this phenomenon, however, that I've raised it to first-class status on this site, alongside such staid and traditional Microsoft topics as Windows and Office. So take that for what it's worth.
And no, I'm not going to get into broader opinions about whether Google Apps is viable competition for Microsoft Office, or whether you should use Live Search instead of Google Search. No, this time I'd like to focus on a very simple and singular topic, the Google Chrome Beta, and whether it works as advertised.
If you're interested in my opinion about the why's of Chrome, fear not, I can't shut up about that either. I wrote the first lengthy overview of the browser anywhere (sorry Mr. Mossberg), a full day before it was released, in my Google Chrome Preview. And I've written two WinInfo news articles, Google to Launch its Own Web Browser ... Today, and Google's Browser Created Out of Fear of Microsoft, that pretty much sum up my feeling about why Google is really doing this.
Whatever, right? Google's browser is here. We can use it, look at it, and evaluate it. And I have to tell you, so far, I like what I see.
One of the things that's quite striking and obvious about Chrome is how stripped down it is from a visual standpoint. It's like a 1.0 Apple product in this way: What's there works wonderfully but you very quickly find yourself wondering where some pretty obvious features went. This simplicity extends from the Setup routine--which if anything is too simple; you can actually miss out on some important choices if you're not careful--to the browser UI itself, which dispenses with most of the busyness that dogs other browsers. There's no menu bar or status bar at all, and whatever UI there is just fits in a single horizontal row by default. Google has compared the uncluttered Chrome UI to that of its Web search page, and fair enough. There's a certain consistency there, and if you value that sort of thing, Chrome will be instantly appealing.
Google says that the point of the UI minimalism is to get the browser out of the way so you can focus on whatever Web application, site, or service you're using. This, too, is believable and mostly effective, though I'd also point out that I never really thought of the Firefox UI as being distracting or busy, and of course I pare that browser UI down as well myself. (That's one of the nice things about a product as malleable as Firefox, I guess. It can be simple or complex, your choice.)
Chrome looks equally at home in both Windows XP and Vista. I like that. And it's one part of the UI that I think Mozilla really screwed up with Firefox 3 (see my review). Despite an apparent effort to make that browser look native in each OS, I think it just looks different. Chrome, somehow, seems to disappear into Windows in a very pleasing way. It's a sharp looking browser.
I'd also point out from a general browsing standpoint that Chrome doesn't suffer from the level of Web site incompatibility that does Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 (see my review). Yes, I get that the WebKit rendering engine is mature and modern and all that, but come on: Did anyone really think that a Google browser would be more compatible with the Web than the next version of the most compatible browser there is? I'm shocked by this, and though I know I'm going to get dozens of emails from people complaining about specific sites not working properly with this browser, in my experience, it's been very compatible. Much more so than IE 8 Beta 2.
If the Chrome user interface has a single unique feature, in my mind it's the focus it puts on tabs. Yes, other browsers have had tabs for years, but Google has put its tabiness (ahem) up front and center, and there are a number of unique capabilities that result.
First, the row of tabs is visually located above the other browser controls, like the Back and Forward buttons, and the address bar (which is actually called the omnibox; see below). Big deal, you're thinking; it's just in a different place. Actually, this subtle change means that each tab has its own set of controls. And all of the things that are associated with that tab--including your browsing history--travel with the tab.
And travel they can. While other browsers offer a way to drag and drop tabs within a single window, Google takes this capability a step further by letting you drag tabs onto the desktop, to create a new window, or onto other windows. Chrome does lack the nice tab grouping and coloring feature that adorns IE 8 Beta 2, however.
Tabs aren't just about looks either. As is the case with IE 8 Beta 2, tabs in Chrome all run within their own process, so they essentially work and act like individual applications in Windows. In older browsers, the entire browser window was a single process. So if something in one tab crashed, the whole browser crashed. Mozilla sort of fixed this problem by creating a browser recovery feature for Firefox. But Microsoft and Google have really fixed it by not letting errant Web content in one tab bring down the whole browser.
Google thinks so much of tabs that the default home page, such as it is, is sort of like a Web search results page that shows you the pages you've visited most frequently. The notion here is that most people visit the same places over and over again, so this page should prove worthwhile for many users. I'm still unsure about it, but since my traditional home page is one of the "results," I will try to make it work. From a presentation standpoint, this default home page is laid out with two major sections. On the leftmost three quarters of the page is a grid of Web page thumbnails, similar to the Quick Tabs view in IE 7 and 8, where each thumbnail is of a page you've visited frequently and recently. On the right is a text column with a search box and recently bookmarked pages.
Instead of sporting a separate address bar and search box, Google Chrome combines them into a single, unified box that does it all. Dubbed the "omnibox," this uber address bar lets you manually type in Web addresses, of course. But it also provides Web search functionality, access to your Web history, live suggestions, and more. It should be noted that both Mozilla, with Firefox 3, and Microsoft, with IE 8 Beta 2, have made recent advances with their address bars. But Google is the first to combine the address bar with the search box, a move that, in retrospect, seems somewhat obvious.
And it works. You can select the omnibox in all the usual ways--with the mouse, via the ALT+D and CTRL+L shortcuts, and so on--and then just start typing. If you type a Web address, the omnibox will handle that, of course, and will auto-complete via drop-down, as with other browsers. Type in a non-URL and you can search Google--or, get this, the search engine of your choice--directly from the omnibox. I like it.
Tip: If you tap CTRL + K (the keyboard shortcut in Firefox for selecting the search box) or CTRL + E (the keyboard shortcut in IE 7/8 for selecting the search box), the Omnibox will be selected and the characters "? " will be added, allowing you to type in a search query. Nice.
Most browser makers seem a bit obsessed with bookmarks (or, in IE lingo, favorites). Witness Mozilla's machinations with the Places/Library/Organize Bookmarks feature in Firefox 3 (seriously, what's the name, really?) and the spastic number of locations from which you can access favorites in IE 8 (Favorites Menu, Favorites Bar, Favorites Center) for obvious examples.
I find bookmarks annoying because I use so many different PCs, and the notion of saving a list of favorite links on individual PCs seems a bit too 1990s for me. (There are ways to save bookmarks online in a central location to overcome this problem, but I simply forego bookmarks, choosing instead to use a Web-based home page that has links to all the sites I need regularly.)
Anyhoo, Google, too, doesn't seem very concerned about bookmarks. By default, there's no mention of bookmarks in the Chrome user interface at all. However, if you imported bookmarks from another browser, you'll see a pretty tame Bookmarks bar below the browser control strip. (You can also enable it manually.) And as with Firefox, you can bookmark any page by clicking a star icon in the address bar/omnibox. And that's about it.
Google says they're working on a better bookmarks management system. But honestly, I think they should give it time and think about providing a centralized Web-based system for managing bookmarks instead of hard-coding it into the browser. This will keep the browser simple for those that don't need this feature, and provide excellent functionality for those that do. Plus, they could use Gears to provide offline access.
Mozilla created a technology called Prism that allows you to take a Web application like Gmail, Google Calendar, or whatever, and save a shortcut to it on your Windows desktop. When you click such a shortcut, it loads the Web application in a minimal browser window that has no controls whatsoever, giving you a pseudo-local-application experience. Combined with offline technologies like Google Gears, these "best of both worlds" solutions can bridge the gap between the Web and Windows, and cloud computing advocates believe they will make it easier for consumers to adopt Web solutions during this transitionary period.
Google builds this capability into Chrome though it should be noted that you'll still need some sort of back-end offline functionality to make a Web application work like a true desktop application. All you need to do is visit a site (like Gmail) and choose Create application shortcuts from the Control button (which appears to the right of the omnibox). Chrome can create three shortcuts for any Web app, one each in the Start Menu, Desktop, and Quick Launch toolbar.
The effect is nifty and, again, much like that achieved with Prism. Each application shortcut maintains its own window dimensions, as well, just like a real application. And because Chrome is Gears-enabled, any Web applications that do take advantage of that technology can be used offline. The poster child at this time is Google Reader, Google's Web-based RSS reader.
I haven't been using Chrome long enough to provide any meaningful opinions about its reliability, but I will make two observations. First, it's been rock solid on two different machines, and it's never crashed. Secondly, in the same time period after having installed IE 8 Beta 2, I did experience some crashes. Take those as the unscientific observations that they are.
In addition to the previously-described tabs-as-a-process feature, Google does provide a task manager (which is curiously similar to the Windows task manager) and, for "geeks" (read: Web developers), an About Memory page that provides more detailed information. You can use the task manager to kill errant tabs, but again, I've had no call to do so yet.
Tip: If you type about:% in the Chrome address bar/omnibox and hit Enter, you'll crash the whole browser. So much for tab process isolation.
Google Chrome provides a number of safety features, such as protection against malware hosts and phishing sites. In use, this functionality works much like similar features in Firefox 3 and IE 7/8, where you'll see a red page warning you of the problem.
Like IE 8 Beta 2, Chrome also features a special privacy browsing mode, which Google calls Incognito. (I like Microsoft's name for this feature, InPrivate, better.) Icognito launches as a separate browser window that features a few visual differences from a standard Chrome window, including a weird little spy character in the upper-left of the window. (He looks a little too much like the logo for GameSpy to me.) On Windows XP, the window is a darker color as well.
When you browse with an Incognito window, nothing you do is saved by the browser after you close the window. That means such things as cookies, Web history, and search history will all be erased. So it's perfect for when you want to secretly buy a present for your wife. Or, yes, browse porn.
Google's no-nonsense file downloading functionality comes at an interesting time for me because I was just experimenting with turning off the download manager in Firefox 3 and allowing downloads to occur in the background, using just status bar-based notifications to let me know how things were progressing. Put simply, this is how Chrome works by default. It offers no visible browser manager by default. Instead, when you trigger a download, a small pop-up status bar-type display appears at the bottom of the current tab, noting the name of the download and, while it's downloading, it's progress. On the right is a Show all downloads link that will display a whole page showing every download you've performed, but there's no pop-up window as with most browsers.
Some people will take exception to this, and my guess is that download managers are one of the number one add-ons for IE, which lacks such functionality. But I really like Google's minimalism here. And I think you will too if you give it a chance.
Moving from your old browser
Google makes it easy to switch from your current browser to Chrome, assuming your current browser is IE or Firefox (which it probably is; over 95 percent of Web surfers use either browser). You can import bookmarks, search engine preferences, saved passwords, and browsing history from your default browser during install, though you'll miss it if you're not paying attention. (You can also import this data after the fact using a link in the Customize menu.) I actually did miss this the first time around and was surprised to see Chrome seamlessly access one of my password-protected sites. Yikes.
Obviously, there's a lot more going on here, but it's early yet and we'll have to see how Google improves this thing over time before rendering any meaningful judgment. My initial off-the-cuff reaction to Google Chrome, however, is quite positive. It seems fast and efficient, and while it certainly works well with Google's Web applications, it also appears to work just fine with the rest of the Web that I visit regularly. If you're a heavy Google user like me, Chrome is no-brainer, you're going to love it. Otherwise, you should still try it: It doesn't break half the Web like IE 8, certainly, and installing it doesn't preclude you from continuing to use IE or Firefox, or any of the other browsers out there.
Is Google Chrome the future of the Web? You know, it just might be. So far so good.