A 64-bit version of Google's Chrome browser has arrived for Mac users -- but it's leaving many plugins behind.
Google released the stable version of 64-bit Chrome for Windows users this week to those who specifically download it, but the company is being more aggressive with Apple's OS X. Although the 64-bit version of Chrome for Mac only just reached beta-testing status, Google plans to make it the default release, according to a blog post Thursday by Chrome team programmer Mark Mentovai.
"Nearly every Mac user has a computer capable of running this 64-bit version, so we're automatically updating all Mac Chrome beta channel users," Mentovai said.
The 64-bit shift modernizes software running on PCs with 64-bit chips released over the last decade, but it doesn't necessarily provide a night-and-day performance increase. The availability of new on-chip memory slots called registers can help 64-bit programs, but the advantages Google highlighted are security, lower memory consumption, and faster launch speed.
"Previously, Chrome was a 32-bit app on Macs," Mentovai said. "While doubling the number of bits won't make things twice as good, it does allow us to make a number of speed and security improvements."
Chrome, though it's become a dominant browser in the six years since its initial public release, still faces major competition from Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Apple's Safari, and Mozilla's Firefox. Google has a lot riding on Chrome: it helps the company drive technology it wants into the Web, it's the foundation for its Chrome OS operating system, and it lets Google keep more search-ad revenue than with searches launched from other browsers' search boxes.
The 64-bit memory advantages come for those who don't have any other 32-bit software running on their Macs; shifting entirely to 64-bit software means that the operating system doesn't have to load 32-bit support software that programs like browsers can draw upon.
The 64-bit Chrome beta arrived more than five years after the initial request for 64-bit Mac support. Apple moved its Safari browser to a 64-bit version almost exactly five years ago, part of a gradual shift of its operating system and its higher-level software such as Final Cut Pro X.
As with the Windows 64-bit transition, Google is leaving behind 32-bit plugins that can extend a browser's abilities. When Google launched Chrome, it adopted the NPAPI standard that Firefox uses for accepting plugins, but it later moved to a new interface of its own making, PPAPI.
Google is phasing out support for all NPAPI plugins later this year, but for now, 64-bit NPAPI plugins will work in the 64-bit Chrome for Mac beta. Examples of 64-bit NPAPI plugins that Google confirmed work with 64-bit Chrome on Windows include Oracle's Java and Microsoft's Silverlight.
"Users shouldn't notice any changes, because most major plugins are available in both 32-bit and 64-bit form, and many major websites have been switching from NPAPI towards more modern HTML5 APIs," referring to the modern-Web programming interfaces, Mentovai said.
The most widely used plugin by far is Adobe Systems' Flash Player, though the company is trying to move beyond it through support of Web standards that duplicate some Flash abilities. Chrome comes with a built-in 64-bit version of Flash Player that uses PPAPI, so that won't stop working with the upcoming plugin change.
Web developers today frown upon plugins in general. They open browsers up to security risks, lead to crashes, and can be hard for people to install and maintain. But there are a lot of plugins -- other examples include Unity's Web Player, LastPass's password manager, Apple's QuickTime, and the Google Earth plugin.