Why Google Chrome? Fast browsing = $$$

Google is betting that its Chrome browser will speed up Web search, Web advertising, and Web applications--even if it's because it forces Microsoft to improve IE.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--On the Web, a site that responds a few milliseconds faster can make a big difference in people's engagement. It's for this reason that Google believes its new Web browser, Chrome, is a project worth investing in rather than a footnote in the history of the Internet.

Chrome, Google said during its Tuesday launch event, is much faster at showing Web pages than the most widely used browser, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Google's hope is that performance will open up the bottleneck that chokes the speed and abilities of today's Web-based applications.

In short, Chrome is more of a long-term competitive threat to Microsoft Office and Windows than it is to Internet Explorer.

That may sound a little grand, but the evidence is on display in Google's own lobby, where the search company's computer kiosks present a browser only--no start menu, no desktop shortcuts, no operating system.

Why speed means money

Google benefits materially from fast performance. First, when it comes to search, Google discovered when its search page loads fractionally faster, users search more often, which of course leads to more opportunities for Google to place its highly lucrative text ads. Second, a faster Web application foundation means that Google's online applications for e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, and calendars can become faster and fuller-featured.

Note that Google likes to talk about its three main efforts: search, ads, and apps, and with Chrome or a faster browser in general, all three benefit.

"Our business does well if people are using the Web a lot and are able to use it easily and quickly," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said.

Google faces many challenges with Chrome--convincing anyone other than a few early adopters and Web developers to adopt it, matching the pace of development of rival browsers, and assuring the Google-phobic that it's OK for the company to be in charge of yet another essential element of computing. But Google's influence is strong enough that just talking about performance and rattling its chrome-plated saber is probably enough to advance its Web-application agenda.

Brin was loath to call Chrome an operating system, but it was clear at Tuesday's event that he defines Chrome's success in terms of the applications that can be run.

"The word 'operating system' comes with a lot of baggage. We have a lightweight, fast engine for executing Web applications," Brin said. But, he added, "I think we'll see more and more Web applications of greater sophistication. All the things (you see) today are pretty challenging to do."

And, Brin added, Google benefits even if Chrome has no other influence than to get the competitive juices flowing faster among developers of competing browsers: "Even if IE 9 was much, much faster as a result of Chrome, we would consider that a success," Brin said.

Chrome's V8 engine

Google's has a two-part claim to faster performance. One is its use of the open-source WebKit project, also used in Apple's Safari, to render Web pages on the browser screen engine for showing Web pages. More important for Web applications, though, is the brand-new V8 project for running programs written in JavaScript.

Lars Bak is proud of Chrome's JavaScript performance.

Lars Bak is proud of Chrome's JavaScript performance.

Stephen Shankland/CNET News

JavaScript has grown from modest beginnings into the language of many fancy, interactive Web sites and the foundational technology for rich Web applications using a technology called Ajax. However, for many applications, it's not powerful enough, which is why Picnik's online photo editing tools use Adobe's Flash and why Microsoft is pushing its own technology called Silverlight.

Google, Yahoo, and others, though, are JavaScript fans, and speeding it up will boost countless Web sites, not just bleeding-edge applications such as Google Docs. Faster JavaScript performance is why Mozilla is so eager to talk about a project called TraceMonkey coming with Firefox 3.1, why WebKit programmers are working hard on a project called SquirrelFish, and one reason why Microsoft is eager to move people to its forthcoming Internet Explorer 8.

With a JavaScript speed test Google showed during the event, Chrome trounced IE 7, Microsoft's current browser, but I was leery of generalizing too much from a press conference demonstration. Lars Bak, though, the Google engineer who was the technical leader for V8, is confident in the technology.

Bak wouldn't share any specific numbers, but he said Chrome is "many times faster" than IE 7. How about Firefox, now and later with TraceMonkey? "Many times faster. I guarantee you."

Of course, Bak was basing his claims on Google's own suite of JavaScript benchmarks, available on the V8 Web site. But at first blush, the tests, with 11,000 lines of code, aren't a wildly skewed set.

New horizons for Web developers?

Faster JavaScript means that applications can be faster, but also that programmers can push the Web application limits farther. "You can include more code in the browser. It really opens up the creativity of the Web app developer," Bak said.

And Sundar Pichai, a Google vice president of product management, was salivating over the possibilities.

"Most developers don't use JavaScript a lot because it doesn't run very fast," he said. V8 "will enable a whole new class of applications for tomorrow."

The biggest buzzkill for Google's vision, though, is that the Internet is just as much a boat anchor as an engine of innovation. Firefox has achieved notable market penetration and has inflamed the passions of many Net aficionados, but it still lags the market share of Internet Explorer 6, which was introduced in 2001, when the first Internet bubble was still in the process of bursting.

And Google didn't have much to convince me that average users would be moving to Chrome anytime soon. Faster browsing and various features for user interface, security, privacy, and search are handy, but not enough to get most people to take the trouble of downloading and installing a new browser.

But even if Chrome never gets far beyond the stage of publicity, don't discount the power of Google promotion. The company has a lot of power in setting the technology agenda. And as long as the company is willing to count a faster IE as a successful outcome, its Chrome project looks like it'll be a win.