Yesterday, a Google-created comic-book heralded the arrival of a new web browser: Google Chrome. The accidental unveiling prompted an early announcement by Google that yes, we will indeed see another webbrowser enter the market. So there it is. The company everyone most people love is about to enter a saturated market full of passionate users. Is this really a good idea? Yes. Yes it is, and there are a lot of reasons why that is.
Looking at what few glimpses we’ve yet seen of Chrome, it’s quite clear that Google has taken inspiration (and admits to having done so) from the other major players. There’s no file menu and the tabs are now above the addressbar. Removing all the features that aren’t immediately necessary in day-to-day browsing has effectively made a very clean and cruft-free UI. Whether we’ll have to stick with that hideous-looking bluish skin or whether Chrome will be able to use the operating system default skin, remains to be seen. (Small update on this from the beta: It seems that for at least the window frames, Google is able to harness the Vista “glass” effect. Text-areas, however, are still not Vista textareas but more like Firefox 2 1px bordered squares).
Putting the tabs right at the top, to me, is the most interesting aspect of Chrome. Doing this puts much more value on tabs: suddenly using tabs isn’t an option, it’s an integral feature you have to learn.
A while back I tried tackling tabs and found that having them be right at the top felt most logical. After all, navigation controls are related to the contents of each tab so there’s really no reason to physically dislodge the two. An added benefit for Windows users would be that when the window was maximized, tabs will be close to the top edge of your screen. Screen edges are prime real-estate when talking usability—just ask Paul Fitt—so this would be worth working towards1. It was an interesting challenge, and while the result at the time felt a tad off, Google has now canonized it. Behold my totally prescient prediction:
Focusing so much on one tab one webpage can also be seen as a statement of intent. With Calendar, Gmail and Docs, Google has clearly positioned themselves as application providers. With so much focus on the tabs, your browser might actually start to look like an operating system in itself; each tab representing an application in your little operating system microcosmos. Suddenly it’s not so far off to speculate that Google Chrome is the oft-rumoured Google Operating System2. Even the name itself, Chrome, refers to the the surrounding frames and borders of an application window.
Give that some thought. If all your applications ran in your browser (even today, apps such as Photoshop can do so), whether you ran Windows or MacOS would be moot. You could simply switch to Ubuntu as long as it could run Chrome—it would save you quite a few bucks.
It’s interesting to note that Google chose WebKit, Safari’s HTML engine, as opposed to Firefox’s Gecko engine. Google argues the former has a cleaner codebase, but no matter what, it’s a slap in the face of Mozilla. I bet it’s made even more bitter considering Ben Goodger of former Firefox fame is now working on Chrome. What this means to Gecko and XUL will be fascinating to see. Considering the performance gains Gecko got in Firefox 3, Gecko might not die altogether.
There’s a question of why Google wants to do this. The passionate Firefox user might argue (and be right about) that Google could save oodles of cash in not having to pay Mozilla for their search engine to be included in the browser3. The more people used Chrome over Firefox, the less Google would have to pay Mozilla. That being said, I would guess the amount Google pays Firefox is considered peanuts to the brightly colored company, peanuts they would gladly continue to pony up as long as it annoyed Microsoft. Also, Chrome is open source, so there’s really no reason to think anyone at Google wants to cannibalize Mozillas marketshare. Even so, that’s going to happen to some extent. That, or Chrome fails miserably.
Following the development and adoption of Chrome is going to be super interesting. What will it look like? Will it really be as fast as they boast? And what new apps will Google build for it? Will those apps work in other browsers? Clearly Google is playing chess, and Chrome is one of their pieces. I can’t wait to see who gets checkmated.
Update: Go grab the beta.
Whether Chrome will actually utilizise this benefit, we’ll have to wait for the beta to see. Update: Google Chrome does make use of the screen edges for the tabs! Impressive. ↩