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Where Chrome is headed

Really long time since I posted. To those who’ve been checking back, extremely sorry – I’ve been deluged with work, research and job hunting among other things.

What brings me back from the writers’ grave is the release of Google’s Chrome browser. On their blog, they called it a fresh take on the browser, and thats what got me thinking. The browser, as we know it, has improved bit by bit for a long time. I remember when Firefox was called Firebird (pre-1.0 days), and I was floored by this browser which had this neat idea called tabs. Since then, though, every major browser release has been underwhelming and incremental, no matter how well marketed.

I downloaded and played with Chrome for a while. On the face of it, Chrome adds a few more incremental goodies. A slick, fast and light UI. Tab isolation to prevent rogue tabs from crashing everything. Better search integration, faster Javascript, better phishing protection and sandboxing. Similar features have been touted by almost ever major browser upgrade.

It also comes with a couple of annoyances — Windows only (though apparently we will see versions for Mac and Linux), and the download is a downloader which then downloads the browser, and it installs a separate GoogleUpdater process in a hidden location which doesn’t go away on uninstallation.

I doubt that Google would go to the trouble of making an entirely new browser from scratch for all this, though. Especially since they already pay for a lot of Firefox development; all of these features can plausibly be shoe-horned into Firefox. Nor do I think Chrome was developed to challenge any existing browser or to gain market share — Google couldn’t care less which browser you use to click on ads on an Adsense-enabled page. Their code is going to be open source, so they clearly do not mind people borrowing their ideas and making products that are as good or better. In fact, they encourage it.

Three things about Chrome though, are very un-browserish, at least in the traditional sense. One, they seem to have worked insanely hard to increase Javascript execution speed. Google is actually compiling Javascript to machine code, even though Javascript is traditionally interpreted. Moreover, they’re relying on optimizations that assume long-running Javascript applications, like dynamic classes. Which means that they’re guessing which set of objects have the same properties and methods; and constructing hidden classes to represent those objects to enable (I think) dynamic code reuse. Tech pundits, correct me if I’m wrong. Given that modern object oriented developers would be expected to this on their own; this is almost like cleaning up a messy teenager’s room. Essentially, the idea here is to convert Javascript into a language like C# or Java.

Two, Chrome comes with Google Gears built in; this allows Javascript to have locally-installed application-like bindings — it can store state offline on the user’s computer, interact with databases, perform multi-threaded processing. Not something the average webpage is interested in today.

Finally, it’s easy enough for Chrome to discard everything that ties it to even being a browser. There is a mode which can take away the tab bar and the URL bar and leave it looking like a normal application window. Since every tab is isolated in it’s own process, there’s no question of it being affected by other Chrome windows or tabs. Google describes this as a good mode for certain web applications, examples being, obviously, GMail and Google documents.

So is it just me, or is Chrome then one of the pieces of Google’s application development framework? Sure, it’s a web application development framework; but the end-user won’t even need to know that he or she is working on what is essentially a browser. The line between a web application that runs on a browser and sends UI and data to the user (think GMail) and a local application that has its own UI but interacts with a webservice in the background for data (think Thunderbird or Outlook) is becoming finer and finer. It isn’t hard to imagine a “program” which is just locally stored CSS and some Javascript to interact with a webservice like GMail over AJAX that runs on chrome and is for all practical purposes, a locally installed application.

Of course, this extends to any web service. Theoretically, with Chrome, you could start “Google Word Processor” from your start menu; which opens it up in a Chrome webapp Window and lets you work without bothering you with unnecessary details – like the fact that you’re actually working on a browser with local and web storage synchronization. This comes with all Google docs features; your friend could be editing the same document at the same time; and that neat chat window will open up inside the application to let you two argue about British vs. American spellings. Given that there’s offline as well as online data storage, you won’t be dependent on the network being up 100% of the time. Given that Javascript is now compiled to native machine code, it’ll run as fast as any locally installed application. It’s now only up to the developers to compete on features with something like Microsoft Office plus Sharepoint server. The price? Free.

Google’s probably not doing this entirely for consumers like us. PCWorld recently talked about how Google would really like to get into the enterprise space, which right now forms a tiny 2% of its revenue. There’s a huge potential there, especially now that Google has picked off all of the low hanging fruit and much of the higher hanging ones in the consumer search and advertising markets.

One last interesting bit. All of this is open. Chrome, Google gears and its APIs, their fast Javascript engine are all open source. Which means that Google is pretty confident of playing the game well. Confident enough that they’re using the lure of opening up these opportunities to get the market to move to these technologies. And people are taking this up already. Netsuite This was written by Anshul. Posted on Saturday, September 6, 2008, at 7:02 pm. Filed under browsers, tech. Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments here with the RSS feed. Post a comment or leave a trackback.