Google Chrome: that full review already

posted 16 September 2008

So after using Google chrome for a few weeks, it's finally time for me to give a proper review of it, both as a browser and as a strategic move by Google. Let's start with the technical stuff:

The good

Chrome is fast. Like crazy fast. I'm not sure exactly how it manages this trick -- I suspect preloading of the browser -- but there's no denying the results. Firefox takes 10 seconds or so to launch, and chrome is up within a few seconds.

My primary use of Chrome has been for Gmail: I hit the "create application shortcuts" link for Gmail on the first day and it's rapidly become the primary way I use Gmail (at least on Windows). It's just so much faster and more reliable. I assume that speed boost is partially from the use of Gears, but I'm not clued-in on what they're using gears to do, so I could be wrong about that.

The home page multi-pane view is a nice touch (stolen from Opera). The lack of a separate search box -- just an address bar which takes either URLs or search terms -- I initially thought I was going to hate, but my disaste rapidly faded: if I can't remember the URL exactly I'm going to search anyway, so combining the two makes sense. Firefox's awesome bar is only a few tweaks away from working this way. I worry that it will further blur the purpose of URLs for the average user, but the truth is that the average user is already completely confused by URLs that look like www.bankofamerica.stealsyourpassword.com so the battle is probably already lost.

The bad

There is not too much bad about chrome. It's a crazy fast, reasonably stable browser, comparable in feel and utility to Opera -- and that's a key comparison, as I'll mention later. Also like Opera, it also doesn't have an extension architecture comparable to Firefox's own (at least, yet), and that's also a very important distinction.

The Ugly

There's plenty of ugly. The actual chrome of Chrome is full of really weird decisions.

  • The huge blue bar at the top when the window isn't maximized (which on my giant monitors is all of the time) is just a waste of space.
  • The lack of a page load indicator is irritating, even on relatively fast connections. I need to know if the page is broken or still loading, Mr. Browser.
  • When you mouseover a link, the destination of the link is shown in a small grey box in the bottom-left of the window, which truncates the link. This is not just irritating but dangerous: it allows people to obfuscate the link by making it really long, but more dangerously it's trivial to use Javascript to create a form button, styled to look like a link, that produces a little grey box that makes it look like you're about to follow one link, but when actually clicked does something entirely different. Obviously there are a hundred other ways you can use Javascript to do this, but it just seems crazy to add one more way to trick users.

As a strategic move

It seems clear -- and Googlers I've spoken to tacitly confirm -- that Google is not really expecting Chrome to gain significant market traction as a standalone browser. Like Safari for Windows, this is primarily a move aimed at web developers and, even more specifically, at the small community of browser developers. For web developers, it's a glimpse at the future, a sandbox to try out web apps that stretch the capabilities of mainstream browsers. For browser manufacturers, it is a shot across their bows: get innovating, or we will move into your market and kick your asses.

Instead, what Google will get is people copying the architectural ideas put into chrome -- and there are a lot genuinely groundbreaking new ideas in there. Given the licensing of the source, Mozilla at least might just adopt the code wholesale, especially V8, the new Javascript engine with radically improved garbage collection (and hence performance). This is, from Google's perspective, a win. Browsers cost money to develop and support, and they don't really want to have to do that. They just want the web to be faster so that people can run Gmail and Google Docs without killing their machines.

Definitely no mainstream consumers will adopt this browser. Google isn't promoting it heavily outside of the developer community, and even if they did it's not clear that would help. Users who are clueless will stay with whatever browser Microsoft or Apple give them. Users who are not clueless will be loath to switch unless there's a compelling value proposition, and in the case of Firefox it's usually some extension that is specifically useful to them. Chrome, like Opera, is simply a good browser with innovative ideas but not a big enough gain in utility to justify occasional incompatibilities and the hassle of switching -- after all, Opera has been noticeably faster than most mainstream browsers for ages, and nobody uses Opera.

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