What? Google has a browser!
That was my feeling on Tuesday when a co-worker sent me an e-mail about the unveiling of Chrome. Now Chrome enters the browser arena with Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, and other browsers of which I am unaware. Chrome is open source and is currently available as a beta for Windows Vista/XP SP2. According to reports from Market Share, in less than a week Chrome’s market share is already more than 1 percent. Compare this to the top browsers’ market share: 72.15 percent for IE, 19.73 percent for Firefox, 6.34 percent for Safari, and 0.74 percent for Opera.
In the past I have been a two-browser guy. I use IE7 mostly at work except when it flakes out on a site and then I switch to Firefox. That is pretty much the same pattern for home. Don’t get me wrong, I really do like Firefox. Its a great browser. Its just that I have been using IE for so long and specific tasks at work requires it. Now I am a three-browser guy. In fact, this is my first blog post written with Chrome. What is so special about Chrome and why is Google reinventing this wheel? What impact will this have on us as family historians and genealogists?
Quick Chrome Tour
One of the first things you will notice about Chrome is just how simple and clean it looks. You don’t see rows of toolbars competing for your attention. There is no separate search box; just enter a web address or a search query into the “omnibox”. You get a tabbed experience like you would in Firefox and IE7, but the tabs are at the very top.
Chrome keeps track of sites you visit and when you open a new tab you get thumbnails of the most visited sites, your bookmarks, and tabs you have closed recently:
Now that is a smart use for previously unused screen real estate!
Like other browsers, you can search for some text on the page (Ctrl+F) but in Chrome you don’t get a dialog box, a portion of the header drops down to reveal a find box with previous and next buttons. When you type into this box, any matching text on the page is immediately highlighted and the right scroll bar shows a line for each line in the page that has highlighted text.
Its all about the Web Application
That is just a quick overview of some of the useful features of Chrome. So why is Google spending time and money on a new browser? One of the answers is “web applications.” Back in the early days of the web most content was read-only like a page in a book or magazine. Soon came e-commerce and shopping carts and web sites did a little more. This is the era when most browsers were born. But now we do so much more online: banking, sharing photos and videos, sending e-mail, writing documents, researching family history, etc. Many, many more sites now accept our data and store it for later interactions. They just aren’t web pages any more, they are web applications. What Microsoft has been able to achieve with desktop applications, Google wants to do with web applications.
In fact, some of the features of Chrome look more like an operating system then a browser application. An operating system like Windows Vista or Mac OS X runs applications each as a separate process. Some of the advantages of this is that one application doesn’t interfere with another and if one crashes then the others aren’t affected. Now let’s apply that same concept to web applications. Let’s say I have multiple web applications like Footnote, FamilyLink, Facebook, Ancestry, and others each open in a separate Chrome tab. In other browsers each tab would still be part of a single running instance of the browser. If one application gets lost in Neverland and hangs your browser, any unsaved work in the other tabs is lost. In Chrome, each tab is a separate process meaning if one tab goes down, the other tabs are unaffected. There is even a Task Manager window in Chrome where you can see each process and how it is using memory, CPU, and network. Rogue processes can be terminated and the other tabs are blissfully unaware:
A simple, but revealing feature of Chrome allows you to create a shortcut to the web application and put in on the desktop, start menu or quick launch bar. When you click on the shortcut, your application launches in a non-tabbed instance of Chrome. Now the lines between desktop application and web application are blurring. Soon we will be launching applications without regard to whether they are web or desktop. They will just be applications. In a previous post I discussed how desktop and web applications are converging into something called Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). This is just another example. Google has been working on a project called Gears that is intended to enable more powerful web applications by allowing them to interact with the desktop and store data locally in a fully-searchable database. Gears is now part of Chrome.
For Google, this isn’t just about building a browser, it is about dominating the world of web applications like it dominates web searching and advertising.
To help those interested learn what Chrome is all about, Google enlisted the help of artist Scott McCloud to create a 38 page online comic book titled Google Chrome: Behind the Open Source Browser Project. The comic includes the following sections:
- Stability, Testing and the Multi-Process Architecture
- Speed: WebKit and V8
- Search and the User Experience
- Security, Sandboxing, and Safe Browsing
- Gears, Standards, and Open Source
Many of the web sites used in family history research (including the many social networking sites) are really web applications. If Google is able to succeed with a browser that is built specifically for web applications then we should pay attention. This might just be what is needed to advance the capabilities of genealogy applications to the next level. I appreciate the attention Google has paid to user experience design. And I count it as a small victory for all of us who use software when a development team embraces UX design like the Chrome team has.
I have little doubt that Google’s Chrome will be successful. In my use over the last few days, I have found it refreshing. There have been some sites (like labs.familysearch.org) that have complained that I am using an unsupported browser, but that will dissipate soon enough. In the long run, I wonder what will happen to Firefox, Safari and the rest. For better or worse, IE will probably survive. It has such a big market share and rumor has it that IE8 will support a separate process per tab like Chrome does. Right now I am a three-browser guy but if Chrome keeps impressing me then I will be back to two with Firefox being the one left behind.
If you decide to give Chrome a try, share your experience. Let us know if you find some cool feature that is a “must-have” for genealogists.