Two key pieces of Google's effort to make Chrome a more competitive browser fell into place on Tuesday as Google released beta versions of the browser for Mac OS X and Linux.
Tuesday's software release is a version of Chrome that had previously been available only as developer preview software for Mac and Linux machines. "It took longer than we expected, but we hope the wait was worth it," product manager Brian Rakowski said in a blog post.
Macs are widely used, if not as common as Windows machines, and there's been some demand in tech circles for the Mac version of Chrome. Linux, while less widely used among ordinary computer users, has importance of its own: it's the foundation for Chrome OS. That's the browser-based operating system Google hopes will be popular on Netbooks starting next year.
According to the Chromium development calendar, the beta versions are scheduled to graduate to the next level of maturity, "stable," on January 12. almost exactly a year ago.
Google doesn't emphasize product version numbers in the project, instead automatically delivering updates behind the scenes to the browser that take effect when it's restarted. But it does use version milestones to keep track of development internally.
The biggest new feature of Chrome 4.0 is support for extensions, which let people customize the browser. In the Mozilla world, they're called add-ons, and they've been a big part of Firefox's success.
Extensions aren't useful, though, unless people can find them. Google on Tuesday also launched a Chrome extensions gallery page.
There are more than 300 extensions available for Chrome, extensions programmers Aaron Boodman and Erik Kay said in a blog post.
However, extensions on the Mac aren't yet available, though they had been for a time in the developer-preview version. "Extensions aren't quite beta-quality on Mac yet, but you will be able to preview them on a developer channel soon," Rakowski said.
Also on the Chrome for Mac to-do list: a bookmark manager, PDF viewing in the browser, bookmark synchronization, 64-bit support, and my personal favorite differentiator of Firefox 3.6 on the Mac, full-screen support.
Why try Chrome?
For those of you new to Chrome, here's a brief version of why it's my default browser on both Windows and, as of about a month ago, Mac OS X. Your preferences and needs may vary, of course, and I still use Firefox every day, too.
Tabs. I spawn innumerable new tabs all day long, and when it takes a long time (I'm looking at you, Internet Explorer), I get infuriated. I also like the order in which new tabs arrive, a style.
The omnibox. It's a single bar that merges the utility of an address bar and search bar. I hit Ctrl-L (on Windows) or Command-L (on Mac) to pop my cursor up there, and start typing. One nice--if somewhat obscure--feature is fast site search on some domains, so for example I can type A, M, tab, and up pops an Amazon.com icon; what I type afterward is entered as a search on Amazon. That conveniently gets me straight to the search results so I don't have to see yet another Kindle ad.
A minimal user interface. When browsing, I like my user interface to step aside and make way for the Web page. Scrolling was a wonderful innovation in computers a few decades ago, but I like to avoid it when I can. Chrome puts tabs in the real estate ordinarily devoted to a program's title bar and shuffles the menu controls off to the right of that tab strip (though the Mac version gets a regular menu bar).
Another potential perk: avant-garde Web technology, including WebGL and O3D for accelerated 3D graphics and Native Client for speeding up Web apps with direct access to a processor, are being built into Chrome. Another such Google project, Gears, is already built into Chrome--though.
There are things you might miss--the full panoply of Firefox extensions, toolbars from Google or others, print preview. And the "browser not supported" error messages on various Web pages are annoying, though in my experience there's rarely an actual compatibility problem. Overall, I like it.
Is Google spying on me?
If you're worried about what new data Google will be able to harvest on you, I recommend a close read of Google's Chrome privacy page. This doesn't worry me much, but I may be insufficiently paranoid. In my opinion, the biggest thing is that Google stores 2 percent of the data it gathers when people type text into Chrome's combination search and address bar, called the omnibox.
That means Google can see not only what you're searching for (as it would for any Google search), but what Web site addresses you're typing as well. The data is anonymized within 24 hours, Google said.
Also, Chrome has a feature called DNS pre-fetching that tracks down the Internet server addresses on Web pages in anticipation that you'll be clicking links on the page. So Chrome--and Google, too, if you're using--retrieves this information from the Internet.
Updated at 12:30 p.m. PST and 1:20 p.m.. Added further detail.