September 18, 2008

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The Little MerChrome
A browser that wished it were an OS
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Last week, I joined thousands of nerd pundits giving you my first impressions of Chrome, the Web browser put out by Google. Since the browser is still in its beta stage, it’s not really fair to expect it to be performing at the level of Firefox or Internet Explorer quite yet. What’s more important is to take a look at Google’s ambitions with the project.

Fortunately for us, the company posted a 40-page comic book about the project on its Web site. Seriously, a comic book. Not a jargon-filled white paper, not an opaque specifications document, but adorable drawings of Google programmers with word bubbles. (You can also download the source code at code.google.com/chromium.)

Very quickly, the comic book (comic book!) starts talking about how Chrome implements multiple processes. Each tab, each plug-in, each separate function of the browser as a whole really is separated into its own independent process. Keeping each process separate prevents inept code from taking down your whole browser, confining the damage to just the current tab. It also keeps malware from snooping or interfering with what you’re doing in that tab.

Processes still do depend upon Chrome itself, but they don’t interfere with each other. Right-click the top bar and one of the selections is “Task Manager,” which will list all the processes Chrome is handling. That window has a cheeky little link called “Stats for nerds,” which opens a new tab detailing the memory usage of all those processes.

It all looks astonishingly similar to the Task Manager in Windows. Come to think about it, the tabs look kind of like the Windows task bar. Chrome couldn’t be making a play to be your new operating system, could it? After all, it’s not like Google offers a bewildering array of applications, from mail and chat to photo editing and 3D modeling. Oh wait, it does? And most of them can be accessed through a Web browser? And others could be accessed through a Web browser if that browser were slick and awesome enough?

For now, Chrome only runs on Windows; Macintosh and Linux beta versions are coming soon. It’s rumored to work on Android as well — you know, Android, the operating system for mobile phones that Google’s working on? In a landscape of increasingly mobile computing, having a lightweight operating system and a fast browser makes perfect sense. Rather than storing programs and documents right on your device, you access everything through a browser. Google, in its infinite generosity, stores your spreadsheets and letters and databases on its own servers, along with the applications needed to open and edit them. All in exchange for viewing an unobtrusive text ad or two.

So why make the browser open source? How can Google replace your operating system if other people can take the code and replace it themselves? Simple: as long as they’re using Google’s code, it makes little difference. Without extensive modifications, whatever Google puts out will be tested with Google applications. If Microsoft and Mozilla incorporate Chrome code into their own browsers, Google Web application programmers have it that much easier.

And, of course, Google gets to flaunt how magnanimous it is. Aren’t they nice?