Two years on, Chrome reshapes browser market

The influence that Google's browser has had on the market is broader than its actual use. On Chrome's second anniversary, Google releases the sixth stable version.

It's been two years since the first public version of Chrome appeared, but in some ways, Google's browser remains a novelty.

On Thursday, Google released the sixth stable version of Chrome (Windows | Mac | Linux), though only the second for Mac OS and Linux users.

In others' hands, it would be called Chrome 6, but Google sees things differently.

To the company, a version number is a passing milestone on an indefinitely long road to improvement. By default, the browser is updated behind the scenes and automatically, downloading new versions and installing them after a browser restart. It sees the practice as similar to how Web applications are updated constantly, usually without the user being involved and often without even being told.

This update philosophy is one of several differences that has set Chrome apart since Google inadvertently scooped its own announcement by prematurely issuing comic books describing Chrome just before its launch.

Google has attracted millions of allies. It's grown steadily to account for 7.5 percent of global browser usage, according to Net Applications' most recent statistics .

Besides numberless versions, another departure from prevailing custom was Google's idea that the browser should be as minimal a frame as possible around the content or application it's delivering. Chrome's minimal menu buttons--shrunk from two to one by the new version--its top-mounted tabs, and its lack of real estate for a status bar or search box reflect that philosophy. Programmers working on Mozilla's Firefox 4 and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 , the new versions of the world's most-used browsers, have adopted similar goals.

Another departure was Chrome's focus on performance in processing Web-based JavaScript programs, loading pages, and other matters. Performance was important to other browsers, but Chrome's initial near-instant launch and notable JavaScript speed that concept at the top of every browser's agenda and raised Web developers' expectations of what they could tackle.

Chrome also led the way with a new approach to extensions. Those who write the add-ons use a combination of Web technologies including JavaScript, HTML, and CSS for formatting--the same as in Firefox's upcoming Jetpack framework under development now and just introduced to Apple's Safari 5. The technology is designed to be easier to program as well as less disruptive for users to install or update.

Under the covers, Google broke with custom by isolating browser processes into separate memory compartments, too. That consumed more memory but added security and performance. And from a development perspective, Google aims for high velocity: a new "Canary" version changes even faster than the Chrome developer release, and Google plans to update the stable version of Chrome about every six weeks.

Finally, Google had an ambition to be different by transforming the browser into a full-fledged operating system called Chrome OS. Competitors agree that browsers should become a foundation for applications, but not quite to Chrome OS's extent. Google plans to release Chrome OS, which hides Linux under the covers for purposes of communicating with hardware, later this year for Netbooks, but it expects broader usage eventually.

Even without Chrome OS, Google's browser embodies the company's philosophy that the Web is the applications foundation of the future. That's because Google is building in not just faster JavaScript but also other potentially more powerful computing technology.

IE remains the dominant browser, but its share has slipped in the last year as Chrome rose.
IE remains the dominant browser, but its share has slipped in the last year as Chrome rose. Net Applications / Stephen Shankland/CNET

First is WebGL, a 3D graphics interface that mirrors the OpenGL standard for accelerated hardware graphics. Second is Native Client, which Google hopes will let downloaded code run natively and therefore fast on a PC or smartphone processor. It's got safety mechanisms built in to counteract the risks associated with running arbitrary software downloaded over the Net, and Google has made progress convincing at least some that it's safe to use.

To those who were baffled by Google's announcement of a browser two years ago, this type of work perhaps shows best the advantage Google gets out of Chrome. By largely controlling the development, Google can develop new technology and build it into a widely used if not dominant browser for testing and promotion. It also gives Google new clout in shaping new Web standards.

Google, of course, also has servers at the other end of the browser's Net connection. That lets the two work harmoniously. For example, Google is trying to develop a technology called SPDY that seeks to speed up the basic protocol used to request and send Web pages. It requires browsers and servers to cooperate, and Google's got both under its control. It's trying to standardize SPDY, but in the meantime Chrome can give a fast track to Google services.

When Chrome launched, it was a bare-bones browser missing all kinds of basic and advanced features other browsers possessed--anything to do with bookmark management, for example. Google has fleshed that out, though some relatively basic features such as print preview are still absent. At the same time, Google has added some useful basic features still missing in rival browsers.

One is tab-to-search, which lets keyboard-oriented folk quickly launch site-specific searches at Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Bing, Wikipedia, CNET, and other sites by typing the site address, then tab, then the search term. Another is automatic translation using Google's multilanguage services.

Google has several challenges. One big one is convincing skeptics that Google, with its ever-wider sprawl of services on the Net, is a safe place for personal data. Chrome's address box, called the omnibox, sends data as it's typed to Google servers that suggest search results straight from the box. That's convenient but raises some hackles.

These user interface features, though, are secondary to the broader Chrome ambition. Google is fundamentally a company about Web services, and Chrome is a vehicle to make those services work better.

The more activity there is on the Web--be it search and search advertising, Gmail and Gmail advertising, Google Docs and Google Apps subscriptions, Google Maps and locally targeted advertising--the more Google stands to profit. Even if Chrome never catches on widely, it still serves as competitive leverage to ensure Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple, and any other browser makers don't get complacent.

How convenient for consumers that a better browser aligns so well with Google's commercial interests.

 

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