Google Rewires the Browser

Chrome is designed to make online applications faster, more stable, and easier to use.

Google launched a browser optimized to run Web applications on Tuesday, a move that some observers believe could help loosen Microsoft’s grip on personal computing. The new browser, called Chrome, has been built to enhance the performance, stability, and usability of complex Web applications. It could help broaden the appeal of Google’s many online services.

Members of the Chrome development team and company cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin unveiled the new browser and demonstrated its capabilities at a press conference held at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA.

The announcement ignited excitement among technology bloggers and pundits, some of whom recalled the bitter “browser war” fought between Netscape and Internet Explorer (IE) during the 1990s. However, because Chrome essentially provides a platform for other applications, many believe that it may pose a direct threat to Microsoft’s core product–the Windows operating system.

One of Chrome’s most significant features is its ability to run Web applications separately, in different windows or tabs, just as an operating system can run applications as individual “processes.” This promises to improve the speed and stability of Web software such as Google Docs, a suite of word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications offered by the search giant.

“If one tab dies, you don’t lose the others or the browser itself,” explains Darin Fisher, who led the project. This also delivers a performance boost, he says, and increases the number of Web applications a person can use simultaneously. “If one tab is busy, you can switch to another one and do work,” he says. “This is nice for performance, especially if you have a newer computer with a dual-core CPU,” because it can run separate operations using each of its cores.

Tabs also function as a prominent navigation tool in Chrome, since users can remove a tab and keep it running as a simplified, stand-alone application. Ben Goodger, lead user-interface engineer on Chrome, notes that people use Web applications differently than they do static Web pages. “We looked at browser interfaces and realized that some of those features–back, forward, and reload–weren’t relevant for Web applications,” he says. “We want to break Web applications free of the browser.”

Web ready: Chrome features a minimal user interface and shows users recently visited sites when a new tab is opened. Each tab also runs as a unique “process” to improve speed and stability.

Another benefit of running browser tabs separately, Google says, is increased security. Usually, when hackers try to install malware on a computer via the browser, they look for bugs in a component called the rendering engine. Chrome runs separate rendering engines and segregates each one with another layer of protection. “It’s an extra level of security,” says Fisher. This means a hacker would need to find not only a bug in the rendering engine but one in the protection layer in order for the malware to make its way out of the browser and into a computer.

Other features resemble improvements offered in the latest versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox. For instance, the address bar–which Google dubs the Omni bar–automatically provides suggested search terms and Web page addresses and can be configured to work with a number of popular search engines. Chrome also offers a private browsing mode, called Incognito, in which no identifying information is recorded during Web surfing. Web history and search information are automatically cleared from the computer and the browser’s memory when an incognito tab is closed.

Microsoft, for its part, only recently introduced Internet Explorer 8, a browser that boasts a number of improvements over previous versions. In a statement regarding the Chrome release, Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer, says, “The browser landscape is highly competitive, but people will choose Internet Explorer 8 for the way it puts the services they want right at their fingertips, respects their personal choices about how they want to browse and–more than any other browsing technology–puts them in control of their personal data online.”

At Google’s press conference on Tuesday, competition with Microsoft was not on the agenda. “In the case of Chrome, we saw an opportunity to rewrite the browser from scratch,” said Brin, adding that the browser’s source code would be made freely available for anyone, including Microsoft, to modify and reuse. “The open-source community can evolve [Chrome] further, into an even more powerful engine for the Web,” he said.

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