Microsoft faces Google’s Chrome

Breaking News, Sci/Tech — By Mary Joah on September 1, 2008 at 8:01 pm

Google announced Monday that it has been hard at work on an open-source browser known as Chrome, a beta version of which will be released in 100 countries on Tuesday.

New features will included “isolated” tabs designed to prevent browser crashes and a more powerful JavaScript engine.

Google was apparently looking to keep news of Chrome under wraps until after the holiday weekend. A 38-page, online comic book that provided details about Chrome hit the blogosphere Monday morning, but Pichai and Upson said in their blog post that Google had “hit ‘send’ a bit early” on the web comic.

The comic depicts various Google engineers describing Chrome’s features, including the isolated tab idea.

“By keeping each tab in an isolated ‘sandbox’, we were able to prevent one tab from crashing another and provide improved protection from rogue sites,” Pichai and Upson wrote.

Having a number of tabs open in a single browser eats up memory. If a browser is running slow, a user’s natural inclination is to close a few tabs? In some cases, however, little bits of the closed tabs remain, which eats up space and requires the operating system to grow the browser’s address space, according to Google. With Chrome, there will be a different tab for each process, including plug-ins.

“When a tab is closed in Google Chrome, you’re ending the whole process,” according to the comic. “You can look under the hood with Google Chrome’s task mananger to see what sites are using the most memory, downloading the most bytes and abusing your CPU” so you can place “blame where blame belongs.”

Google also promised “improved speed and responsiveness across the board.”

“We also built a more powerful JavaScript engine, V8, to power the next generation of web applications that aren’t even possible in today’s browsers,” Pichai and Upson wrote.

Like OpenSocial and Android, Chrome will be an open source initiative.

“We owe a great debt to many open source projects, and we’re committed to continuing on their path,” they wrote. “We’ve used components from Apple’s WebKit and Mozilla’s Firefox, among others — and in that spirit, we are making all of our code open source as well. We hope to collaborate with the entire community to help drive the web forward.”

The team selected Webkit because it uses memory efficiently, was easily adapated to embedded devices, and it was easy for new browser developers to learn to make the code base work, according to the web comic. “Webkit keeps it simple.”

Google recently extended its financial deal with Mozilla until 2011, according to a blog post from Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation.

Tuesday’s beta release will be available for Windows users. “We’re hard at work building versions for Mac and Linux too, and will continue to make it even faster and more robust,” Pichai and Upson wrote.

“This is just the beginning — Google Chrome is far from done,” they wrote. “Google Chrome is another option, and we hope it contributes to making the web even better.”

Last week, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 8 beta 2, which includes improved security and new browsing aids.

Earlier this summer, Mozilla released Firefox 3, which garnered 8 million downloads in 24 hours.

Some quick facts (based on the comic):

  • Chrome (the URL is still a 404) is a fully open source browser based on Webkit — the same underlying architecture that powers Apple’s Safari and their iPhone browser.
  • It will be multi-threaded, with each process having its own memory and copy of global data structures.
  • Because each tab will run using its own process, crashes or memory leaks or renegade JavaScript theoretically won’t bring down the whole browser — just that tab.
  • It will have an OS-like process manager so you can get a tab-by-tab view of which web apps are hogging your CPU and bandwidth.
  • Google claims that nifty new implementations of how the browser deals with JavaScript (like a built-in JavaScript virtual machine called V8) have significantly increased the speed of web applications.
  • Gears comes pre-loaded — which means a commitment to web standards.
  • Tabs are above the address bar, not below it (as in other modern browsers), meaning more emphasis on the pages you’re viewing. Each tab has its own controls (forward, back, address bar, etc.)
  • The address bar has auto-complete and keyword suggestions baked in.
  • A “new tab page” shows your 9 most visited sites, searches, recently bookmarked sites, and recently closed tabs when you open a new tab.
  • Chrome has a privacy mode (think IE 8’s now infamous InPrivate mode, that the web has unceremoniously dubbed “porn mode”) built-in.
  • Popups are confined to the tab where they originated, unless you want to drag them out to their own window.
  • Web apps can be launched in their own toolbar-less browser window — along with Gears support that sounds a lot like Mozilla Weave territory.
  • Chrome will have built-in phishing protection based on a continually updated list of bad sites.

So why is Google building Chrome? According to the comic, the reason is that they wanted a browser that was built from the ground up with web applications (like the ones that they create) in mind. Google says they want a browser that is “more stable, faster, more secure, [and] with a clean, simple, and efficient user interface.” Apparently Firefox, the open source browser project from Mozilla that Google has backed almost since the start, isn’t any of those things.

“Why are we launching Google Chrome? Because we believe we can add value for users and, at the same time, help drive innovation on the web,” Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, and Linus Upson, Google engineering director, wrote in a blog post.

Google has been rumored to be working on a browser for at least 4 years, so it’s not really a surprise that they actually are working on one. But why start from scratch with their own offering rather than just put more effort into supporting Mozilla? That’s an especially interesting question considering that last week Google renewed its investment with Mozilla through 2011.

Google says that Chrome is about helping “all browsers become more powerful” by building “a solid foundation for modern web applications,” and hopes that other browser developers — including the Webkit and Mozilla open source projects — will borrow some of the ideas they put out there.

That’s admirable, but this also feels a lot like it fits in with the Google trend of wanting to be in control of everything. Yes, it is an open source project, but it’s one crafted in Google’s image (like Knol is Wikipedia in Google’s image, or like Google Friend Connect is open standards done Google’s way). And as Google Operating system observes, Chrome is actually the long rumored “Google OS.” If the web is the operating system of the future, as many contend, a browser designed specifically with running web applications in mind will be hugely important and potentially have an advantage over other players.

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