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Browser Coders Make Chrome Shine

But some say that new functionality will need to be standardized.
March 18, 2009

Google designed its Chrome browser to blur the line between online and desktop software. Now, the day after it released the latest beta version of the browser, the company has also launched a project designed to demonstrate Chrome’s future potential. Called Chrome Experiments, the project showcases applications that demand strenuous data processing through multiple Web pages at once. Many of the demos would cause other browsers to crash, say the developers behind the experiments.

Browser hopping: Twitch is a series of nine minigames created by Casey Reas to show off the capabilities of the Chrome browser. Each game calls for the user to maneuver a ball from one side of the window to the other. When the user succeeds, a new window opens, and the ball leaps seamlessly over to the next puzzle. Reas says that the game relies on Chrome’s ability to treat each window separately. Otherwise, he says, the nine windows required would compete for processing power and slow down the browser.

However, while some developers say that the techniques demonstrated through the project highlight new opportunities for building complex Web software, others worry that it may prove difficult to standardize the required features. They say that browser security remains a much higher priority.

One of the Chrome “experiments” is Twitch, designed by Casey Reas, a Los Angeles designer who is also an associate professor of design and media arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. Twitch provides a user with a tiny browser window containing a ball that has to be maneuvered from one side of the page to a target at the other. Once the target is reached, a new window appears, and the ball appears there along with a new set of obstacles.

Twitch takes advantage of Chrome’s ability to launch each window or tab as a separate process on a computer–a feature that lets multiple windows run as if they were separate applications. Without that feature, Reas says, Twitch starts to slow down as the user progresses through the game. As more windows open, each minigame would compete for power from the computer’s processor, and the game would chug to a halt.

Programmer and artist Josh Nimoy created another experiment, called BallDroppings. A user is presented with a single white ball dropping through a black screen, and he or she can draw lines to keep the ball from falling. When the ball bounces against each line, it chimes a note; as more balls drop, the user can keep adding lines, eventually creating a crowded scene for both eye and ear.

All of the experiments show how much a supercharged browser can do with JavaScript and HTML, which are the basic building blocks of Web pages, says Darrin Fisher, one of the engineering leads for Google Chrome. “People typically think that they have to use Flash to get things done,” says Fisher. However, he says, the drawback is that not all browser functions will work with Flash.

Nimoy’s BallDroppings game also uses a new feature that is a part of the draft of HTML 5–a proposed upgrade that should make browsers work better with Web applications. Nimoy says that his game uses the “canvas” tag to speed up the rate at which graphics can be drawn. He adds that when he tested the program on a variety of browsers, it was faster and smoother in Chrome than in any other. The canvas tag, he says, brings the browser a few steps closer to the capabilities of desktop applications.

Reas adds that “Chrome and its fast JavaScript capability offers a glimpse of a Web without proprietary plug-ins.” Since the code used runs directly in the browser, he says, programs don’t need outside plug-ins such as Flash or Java to work. “This is how the Web and innovation on the Web happened back in the mid-1990s,” Reas points out. “Everyone was always looking at how people did things by looking at their HTML code. It made innovation happen quickly. With Flash and Java programs, you don’t have access to the code.”

Chrome and competing browsers are rapidly moving toward supporting more multimedia through HTML and JavaScript. But some JavaScript experts are skeptical of the long-term benefits and warn of the importance of improving browser standardization.

Douglas Crockford, a senior JavaScript architect at Yahoo, says that he’s concerned about browser makers taking on too much with HTML 5, without enough focus on security. “It’s much easier to get people excited about dancing hamsters,” he says, “but we have real security problems that are hurting users and hurting our businesses.” Crockford adds that, no matter what Chrome is capable of, developers cannot reach large numbers of users by building applications for just one browser.

“I’m not seeing any benefit to doing complex animation with JavaScript,” adds Cameron Adams, a Web technologist and JavaScript expert. “It’s too slow, the build tools just aren’t there, and the standardization across browsers takes too long.” He notes that Flash can easily introduce new features because it is controlled solely by Adobe.

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