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Google debuts Chrome for Mac, Linux

A new chapter in the browser's brief history begins as Google starts taking Chrome beyond Windows. Watch out for the missing features and 424 bugs, though.

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Updated 8:53 p.m. with download links and further details and 9:47 p.m. with hands-on testing results.

Google released Chrome for Mac OS X and Linux Thursday--but only in rough developer preview versions that the company warns are works in progress.

"In order to get more feedback from developers, we have early developer channel versions of Google Chrome for Mac OS X and Linux, but whatever you do, please DON'T DOWNLOAD THEM," Google product managers Mike Smith and Karen Grunberg said in a blog post, evidently trying to employ a little reverse psychology. "Unless of course you are a developer or take great pleasure in incomplete, unpredictable, and potentially crashing software."

Until now, Google's open-source browser has been a Windows-only product, and some Mac and Linux users have been clamoring for their own version. Google coders have been working to rebuild some Chrome components, such as its graphical interface and its sandbox that isolates different processes from each other, to move beyond just Windows.

Google offers three versions of Chrome: stable, beta, and developer preview. The Mac OS X and Linux versions fall into this last, category, the most buggy and least tested and complete.

Chrome for Mac OS X sports the same new-tab interface as the Windows version. (Click to enlarge.)
Chrome for Mac OS X sports the same new-tab interface as the Windows version. (Click to enlarge.) Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Flash plug-in won't work, for example, so forget watching YouTube videos. Printing or bookmark management aren't implemented yet. And privacy controls aren't fully baked. Google said there are more than 400 bugs that need to be stomped.

Even though only released for the experimental crowd, the new versions are a big step forward for the browser. First, the versions will plug into Google's auto-update service that automatically downloads new versions. Second, the products bear the Google Chrome brand, not just the Chromium label of the only incarnations available until now. And third, a much larger audience will be helping Google debug the code through automated crash reports of the new versions.

Not everyone can try the Mac and Linux versions, though. Google spokesman Eitan Bencuya said the Linux version is supported only the Debian and Ubuntu incarnations of Linux, and the Mac OS X version only works on Intel-based Macs.

I gave the Mac OS X version a 40-minute whirl and was delighted to find one of my favorite Windows features--fast launch. Pages loaded reasonably quickly, too, though a few times the browser seemed to hang while loading one.

Chrome has edged up to 1.8 percent of the browser market--small but good enough for fourth place.
Chrome has edged up to 1.8 percent of the browser market--small but good enough for fourth place. Net Applications

The only pages that didn't work for me were Yahoo Mail, which told me I had an unsupported browser, and those that required Flash. But a number of complicated JavaScript-based sites, including Gmail, Flickr Organizr, and Google Docs, had no troubles.

The animation around the tabs is pleasing, but also helps your mind grasp what's going on. A new tab rises up from the window frame. When you close a tab, the adjacent ones slide over to fill the gap. The active tab is lighter, though the other tabs are not as relatively dark as in an earlier build that I tried.

I experienced what I thought was one crash I feared brought down my machine, but after about 15 seconds the browser and machine became responsive again as if nothing had happened.

I was pleased to see the three-finger left or right swipe work to page backward and forward. However, some keyboard shortcuts were flaky--or perhaps I just have to learn new ones.

Google isn't saying when the new versions will make it to beta status, much less stable. "It's unclear. This is a first step," Bencuya said.

After years of near-dormancy when Microsoft's Internet Explorer ruled the roost, the browser world again is on fire, fueled by competition and a new generation of more interactive Web applications. Mozilla is on the cusp of releasing Firefox 3.5, as is Apple with Safari 4 for both Windows and Mac OS X. Opera 10 is in beta, and even battleship Microsoft is slowly starting to speed up with the weeks-old Internet Explorer 8.

The Mac OS X version,, is close to the latest Windows developer preview,
The Mac OS X version,, is close to the latest Windows developer preview, Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

According to Net Applications statistics, Internet Explorer remains the king of the heap, with 65.5 percent market share in May 2009. Firefox has 22.5 percent, Safari 8.4, and Chrome has edged up to 1.8 percent since its launch in September.

All this variety means Web developers have to test their sites to make sure they work with more versions. Because Chrome uses the WebKit engine for interpreting and displaying Web page coding, the same engine Safari uses, Google argues that Chrome should be similar. But Chrome uses a different engine for JavaScript called V8, and Web-based JavaScript instructions are at the heart of much of the present proliferation of elaborate Web pages and applications.

The browser challengers argue that having multiple browsers on the market means that Web programmers will aim more for supporting standards such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and JavaScript. And indeed, Microsoft made a standards mode the default for IE 8. However, varying interpretations of standard and varying degrees of support complicate the matter, and a large number of people haven't upgraded from IE 6, much less IE 7.