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The cloud's Chrome lining

September 02, 2008

Google's release today of a test version of its new open-source web browser, Chrome, marks an important moment in the ongoing shift of personal computing from the PC hard drive to the Internet "cloud." I distinctly remember when, back in 1988, Apple Computer added MultiFinder to its Macintosh operating system, allowing my beloved Mac Plus to run more than one application at a time. That was, for us Mac users, anyway, a very big deal. Chrome - if we can trust the comic book - promises a similar leap in the capacity of the cloud to run applications speedily, securely, and simultaneously. Indeed, it is the first browser built from the ground up with the idea of running applications rather than displaying pages. It takes the browser's file-tab metaphor, a metaphor reflecting the old idea of the web as a collection of pages, and repurposes it for application multitasking. Chrome is the first cloud browser.

Though the initial beta release of Chrome runs only on Microsoft's Windows operating system, Chrome is being seen as yet another sharp Google stick aimed at the Beast of Redmond's cyclopean eye - an attempt not only to displace Internet Explorer but to disintermediate Windows itself as the platform of choice for running PC software. There is, no doubt, truth to that view, but in this case I think Google is motivated by something much larger than its congenital hatred of Microsoft. It knows that its future, both as a business and as an idea (and Google's always been both), hinges on the continued rapid expansion of the usefulness of the Internet, which in turn hinges on the continued rapid expansion of the capabilities of web apps, which in turn hinges on rapid improvements in the workings of web browsers.

To Google, the browser has become a weak link in the cloud system - the needle's eye through which the outputs of the company's massive data centers usually have to pass to reach the user - and as a result the browser has to be rethought, revamped, retooled, modernized. Google can't wait for Microsoft or Apple or the Mozilla Foundation to make the changes (the first has mixed feelings about promoting cloud apps, the second is more interested in hardware than in clouds, and the third, despite regular infusions of Google bucks, lacks resources), so Google is jump-starting the process with Chrome.

Although I'm sure Google would be thrilled if Chrome grabbed a sizable chunk of market share, winning a "browser war" is not its real goal. Its real goal, embedded in Chrome's open-source code, is to upgrade the capabilities of all browsers so that they can better support (and eventually disappear behind) the applications. The browser may be the medium, but the applications are the message.

Comments

I have to agree with you that the applications are increasingly in Google's focus: look at page 21 & 22; they explicitly have made the first browser that makes it really easy to toggle between Search engines. The current Firefox drop-down menu is one click too much to make the efforts most of the time — and that one click has been Google's Universal Search main ally so far.

I wouldn't call it shooting in one's foot, but agreeing to have relevant competition because your eyes are set further. Only question remaining: what will become of Ubiquity?

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 05:33 AM

While Chrome is being developed with noble ambition, it will make no more of a splash than the Safari browser has made for Apple.

It's the fourth or fifth browser in a market where the great number of consumers are satisfied.

Posted by: Jeff Grill [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 10:16 AM

@Jeff Grill

Chrome will not displace either Firefox or IE as a browser. In fact, most users can't be bothered downloading a new browser which explains Firefox's relatively weak world market share at between 10% and 20%.

This would be a problem if Chrome was just another browser. It is not. It's an Web application engine for want of a better term. You can bet Google will be building applications that will take full advantage of its under-the-hood technologies. Once this happens users will want to download it. After all, has anyone complained about having to install MS Office on their computer? All that's missing from Chrome is the killer app(s) that will drive its adoption. I'm betting Google Docs is going to get a whole slew of new functionality that will exploit it.

Open-sourcing it, as Nick has said, will make sure the Mozilla Foundation adopts some of its tricks - keeping FF relevant. I doubt we'll see Microsoft doing the same.

Posted by: Asad Quraishi [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 11:38 AM

From my "What is perhaps most intersting though (at least from a cloud computing point of view) is the full-frontal assault on traditional operating system functions like process management (with a task manager that allows users to "see what sites are using the most memory, downloading the most bytes and abusing (their) CPU"). Chrome is effectively a Cloud Operating Environment for any (supported) operating system in the same way that early releases of Windows were GUIs for DOS. All we need to do now is load it on to a (free) operating system like Linux and wire it up to cloud storage (ala Mozilla Weave) for preferences (eg bookmarks, history) and user files (eg uploads, downloads) and we have a full blown Cloud Operating System!"

Posted by: Sam Johnston [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 12:11 PM

From my earlier post: "What is perhaps most intersting though (at least from a cloud computing point of view) is the full-frontal assault on traditional operating system functions like process management (with a task manager that allows users to "see what sites are using the most memory, downloading the most bytes and abusing (their) CPU"). Chrome is effectively a Cloud Operating Environment for any (supported) operating system in the same way that early releases of Windows were GUIs for DOS. All we need to do now is load it on to a (free) operating system like Linux and wire it up to cloud storage (ala Mozilla Weave) for preferences (eg bookmarks, history) and user files (eg uploads, downloads) and we have a full blown Cloud Operating System!"

Posted by: Sam Johnston [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 12:14 PM

To Google, the browser has become a weak link in the cloud system - the needle's eye through which the outputs of the company's massive data centers usually have to pass to reach the user - and as a result the browser has to be rethought, revamped, retooled, modernized.

Or it could just be that Google needed a stick to poke Mozilla in the eye with when they started getting uppity and asking for a greater share of the adsense revenues generated from the search box...

Posted by: Jason A. Lefkowitz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 12:54 PM

It has long been recognized that a browser is a highly limiting 'wrapper' for applications ... not least because of the necessary 'lowest common denominator' security requirements of such an ubiquitous device (multi-processed tabs and speedy javascript parsing nonwithstanding).

Despite that we have made quite some progress on Windows over the past several years, so at least there's something available for Google Chrome to aspire to :-)

http://www.zeepe.com/zeepeinfo/mini-about.asp

http://www.meadroid.com/support/ryan01.jpg

Jerry


Posted by: Jerry Mead [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 02:09 PM

I think Chrome's legacy is to become the design standard for mobile browsing and it may have a serious enough impact on desktop/laptop browsing to free Web designers from the constraints of designing for Internet Explorer. That would be a very good thing. Innovation can occur anywhere, but innovation that sticks requires major marketing mojo, and Google has that mojo.

Posted by: Tony Bove [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 03:00 PM

google chrome wiki
http://www.certbible.org/google-chrome-wiki/

Posted by: dynamips [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 03:40 PM

Browser becoming a commodity, that is what Google wants

Posted by: Luis.tic616 [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 04:18 PM

I've just tried Chrome. When I saw its "Application Shortcut" feature start my GTD spreadsheet (on Google Docs) from a desktop icon, into a separate window, in a separate process, without the usual detritus of address bars and navigation buttons, something clicked in my head. It's a small design feature in Chrome and yet it serves to reinforce the modern browser as a standardised platform for cloud (and local) applications -- i.e. an OS. (Related: What are the implications for Adobe AIR?)

Posted by: whiteheron [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 07:06 PM

Google's release today of a test version of its new open-source web browser, Chrome, marks an important moment in the ongoing shift of personal computing from the PC hard drive to the Internet "cloud."


In this shift to the cloud, what exactly marks the shift? The fact that apps download and run "on the fly", with a very lightweight, if zero, installation?


Can I ask someone, then, what about that whole process necessitates a web browser? What if an Operating System were to build dynamic, sandboxed run-time environments into the OS itself. Would a hypertext browser even be needed? Or would the OS itself just run cloud apps?

Posted by: JG [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 08:01 PM

Why am I getting deja vu? Because about ten years ago another (now gone) company proposed to do the same thing. Like Google, said company was the darling of high tech, with a high-flying valuation, celebrity management, and was seen as a Microsoft rival that was going to relegate Windows to being a "poorly debugged device driver," as applications moved to the browser and the cloud. Microsoft was terrified of them. Like Google, this company was also renowned for arrogance, organizational chaos, and a tendency not to finish things they started.

You probably all know who I'm talking about: Netscape.

Is it different this time? The "cloud" is more of a reality, but Google's work on Android and other things doesn't show much of a talent for creating platforms. Some of the parallels to Netscape are uncanny.

Posted by: Kendall Brookfeld [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2008 11:31 PM

I don't see where Google has really improved the browser; where's the killer app, guys? Maybe the idea is that Chrome will integrate into Google services better that other browsers and give them and edge. That is, if a major government or corporation take the plunge to adopt Google Apps!

The comic book is more of a mid-1990s gradate student's primer on the problems with multi-tasking OSs than a list of new feature that make their browser ready to topple IE. Does the Emperor Google have no clothes? Threading is a feature of the OS not the application running on it; M$ doesn't release the code for IE but most likely IE they are using threads anyway. So, what's the big deal of one thread per tab?

How does this tie in the Android? Smart money has moved away from the desk top to mobile computing as the platform of the future: Kleiner bets the farm. It's kind of unsettling to see one of the top tech companies in a kind of time warp reliving the ten year old browser wars rather than working on some new paradigm for mobile computing! As business practices begin to evolve around mobile computing and away from the per-seat license, does a fat browser - no matter how fast and trendy take away from M$ monopoly on the desk top?

In another article a few months ago called Google's biggest threat? Itself, Eric Schmidt when over a list of weaknesses that he thought might cause problems for Google as it grows. IMHO, Google “lucked out” with ranked search but are making a fatal error by thinking of themselves as a tech company rather than a media company. Rather than re-living the past they ought to be planning the transition to a media company.

I did like the comic book forum for the unveiling Chrome. It reminded me a lot of the film version of Fahrenheit 451; books were illegal but comic books were OK! As Google continues its crusade to digitalize all print media, could they be telling us about or future reading habits?


Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 07:45 PM

Gone will be the days we refer to as 'surfing the web' as web applications will be seamlessly integrated to the browsing experience that you wonder why we ever installed traditional apps in the PC before.

Best.
alain
mor.ph

Posted by: friarminor [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 08:56 PM

Hi Linuxguru ... To me the big deal in Chrome's architecture is three things: (1) one process per tab (note, that is very different from the one thread per tab that you query), (2) a brand new Javascript engine, and (3) integrated Gears. The first gives Chrome isolation between browser tabs, improved stability and robustness. The second gives Chrome blazing speed. The third makes Chrome a platform for applications with offline capability.

These things together make a very nice package. Under my tests I can start and run an online spreadsheet using Chrome (from way down here in New Zealand) faster than I can start the exact same spreadsheet sitting on my local machine using Microsoft Excel. That says something about increasing usability of cloud apps and data.

Posted by: whiteheron [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 10:12 PM

whiteheron:

>> one process per tab (note, that is very
>> different from the one thread per tab

The difference between a thread and process is kind of an subtle OS specific thing. The justification for threads was that they were more efficient than using separate processes with pipes and shared memory segments to communicate - you share code, address space but are spared having to use semaphores and etc to co-ordinate inter-process communication. Since they probably built Chrome with M$s libraries, it would have been nice if Google had disclosed how they had improved upon these tried and true programming methodologies. Are they fork/execing processes inside a process but displaying the tab page through the Windows API? Have they developed their own Windows API?(LOL!) Maybe a RT blogger can download the code and see how they are implementing this. How much is this better that Mozilla on NetBSD in terms of stability?

No doubt that the browser will have to under go massive changes from a static page displayer to move into the era of utility based computing. However, right now what is keeping most business from adopting the cloud model is not a slow browser:
Google's tough sell to Corporate America . Important issues like local control of storage, security and customization that are more critical to getting customers to move out into the cloud. It just seems to me that they ought to be spending man hours on these issues rather than shuffling browser code around.

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 11:38 PM

In one of your posts about adblock (http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2007/09/adblock_plus_th.php) you said: "Google, which has by far the most to lose, refused Cohen's request for comment" I believe we can take chrome as an answer: both in the desktop and in the Android platform there will be no AdBlock. Of course, if they open the API and allow the distribution of AdBlock for chrome I will have been wrong. We shall find out.

Posted by: Juan Parra [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 4, 2008 07:08 AM

A: Soon trains will be wheel-less and integrated to the track!


B: What?


A: Engines are the new wheels.


B: No, you need an engine and wheels to push against the track.


A: New carriages can power trains.


B: That makes them engines.


A: Anyway, in the long term the rails will become the engine and the wheel is a squeaky relic of history.


B: I think you mean a maglev. Which is really a very different system to...


A: Precisely.


A: Would it make any difference to the traveller from a business perspective?


B: Well, no...


A: See.


B: Arrrrrgggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh !

Posted by: Thomas [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 4, 2008 09:03 PM

Chrome might win or might NOT win the browser market. Nevertheless, one surest impact that it would bring is that it will open many people eyes that the time for "a real application browser" (hence not just "patch-up" information browser) has come.

The sense of speed and stability that chrome trigger and initiate might eventually drives the "other browser" to start to embrace, extend or even adopt the idea (and the chrome engine itself), hence eventually we all -- the consumers, users and builders of the web -- gain the advantages.

In that retrospect, Google initiative with its Chrome browser really deserves a Chrome respect. Not only this attempt will be saluted. At the same time it will also probably -- one day -- be remembered as the time and key milestone when browsers transform itself from an "information browsing interface" into a true "application platform front-end" capable of handling smarter, more complex and more complicated application front-end and back-end processes, in the future.

Posted by: Arvino [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 5, 2008 01:39 AM

All proportions correct here, Nick.

Posted by: Sam [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 6, 2008 01:33 PM

Nick - This is one of the weaker posts I've seen from you. At best Chrome is another iteration in the field of browsers.

"Chrome is the first cloud browser" - What's that supposed to mean...

Faster ? - Do you find your browser being a bottleneck? It's the network that's slow. The desktop hardware may be slow for video. Never the browser.

Better for applications ? - At some low technical level of detail - possible. From a user's point of view - I don't see what's going to be different.

It's good that Google released Chrome, made it open source etc. etc. but I don't see why they had to do it. Maybe some unmanaged development group ?

Posted by: Jim Mason [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 8, 2008 03:19 PM

Chrome as a browser looks pretty good. The thread/javascript behaviour of FF & Safari both leave a lot of room for improvement.

As a client platform it's going to suffer the same problem as all the others. A large proportion of users will not install new s/ware (it takes too long) or can't (it's their locked-down work PC).

If I'm going to force my user to download a platform, why wouldn't I choose a fully featured one like .Net OneClick or Java Web Start? Rich clients are a distribution, rather than a technology issue.

Posted by: Thomas [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 9, 2008 07:31 PM

So far Chrome appears to be a platform for Google apps. As a consumer I'm only gonna get interested when they do for Flex/Flash et al what they have done for Javascript, since they contributes far more to my online experience than ECMAscript.

It's not about Chrome tho, it's about improving all browsers to support google apps. As the main browser providers match and even improve the features and capabilities Chrome provides, for free. It will be interesting to see if Google reciprocates when such reciprocating improvements to Chrome aren't in the interest of Google apps.

Google aren't in a browser war, they are in browser hegemony.

Posted by: mark liversedge [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 12, 2008 05:02 PM

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