Google Chrome and the future of browsers

Chrome LogoNews came today confirming Google’s plans for Chrome, its own open source browser based on Webkit.

This is big news. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get much bigger than this, at least in my little shed on the internet.

I’ve been struggling to come to grips with my thoughts on this since I first heard about this this morning over Twitter (thanks @rww @Carnage4Life and @furrier). Once I found out that it was based on Webkit, the pieces all fell into place (or perhaps the puzzle that’s been under construction for the past year or so became clearer).

Chrome is powered by Webkit

Last May I ranted for a good 45 minutes or so about the state of Mozilla and Firefox and my concerns for its future. It’s curious to look back and consider my fears about Adobe Air and Silverlight; it’s more curious to think about what Google Chrome might mean now that it’s been confirmed and that those frameworks have little to offer in the way of standards for the open web.

I read announcement as the kid gloves coming off. I just can’t read this any other way than to think that Google’s finally fed up waiting around for Firefox to get their act together, fix their performance issues in serious ways, provide tangible and near-term vision and make good on their ultimate promise and value-proposition.

Sure, Google re-upped their deal with Firefox, but why wouldn’t they? If this really is a battle against Microsoft, Google can continue to use Firefox as its proxy against the entrenched behemoth. Why not? Mozilla’s lack of concern worries me greatly; if they knew about it, what did they do about it? Although Weave has potential, Google has had Google Browser Sync for ages (announced, to wit, by Chrome’s product manager Brian Rakowski). Aza Raskin might be doing very curious and esoteric experiments on Labs, but how does this demonstrate a wider, clearer, focused vision? Or is that the point?

Therein lies the tragedy: Google is a well-oiled, well-heeled machine. Mozilla, in contrast, is not (and probably never will be). The Webkit team, as a rhizomatic offshoot from Apple, has a similar development pedigree and has consistently produced a high quality — now cross-platform — open source project, nary engaging in polemics or politics. They let the results speak for themselves. They keep their eyes on the ball.

Ultimately this has everything to do with people; with leadership, execution and vision.

When Mozilla lost Ben Goodger I think the damage went deeper than was known or understood. Then Blake Ross and Joe Hewitt went over to Facebook, where they’re probably in the bowels of the organization, doing stuff with FBML and the like, bringing Parakeet into existence (they’ve recently been joined by Mike Schroepfer, previously VP of Engineering at Mozilla). Brad Neuberg joined Google to take Dojo Offline forward in the Gears project (along with efforts from Dylan Schiemann and Alex Russell). And the list goes on.

Start poking around the names in the Google Chrome comic book and the names are there. Scott McCloud’s drawings aren’t just a useful pictorial explanation of what to expect in Chrome; it’s practically a declaration of independence from the yesteryear traditions of browser design of the past 10 years, going all the way back to Netscape’s heyday when the notion of the web was a vast collection of interlinked documents. With Chrome, the web starts to look more like a nodal grid of documents, with cloud applications running on momentary instances, being run directly and indirectly by people and their agents. This is the browser caught up.

We get Gears baked in (note the lack of “Google” prefix — it’s now simply “of the web”) and if you’ve read the fine-print closely, you already know that this means that Chrome will be a self-updating, self-healing browser. This means that the web will rev at the speed of the frameworks and the specifications, and will no longer be tied to the monopoly player’s broken rendering engine.

And on top of Gears, we’re starting to see the light of the site-specific browser revolution and the maturing of the web as an application platform, something Todd Ditchendorf, with his Fluid project, knows something about (also based on Webkit — all your base, etc):

Google Chrome + Gears

In spite of its lofty rhetoric in support of a free Internet, Chrome isn’t Mozilla’s pièce de résistance. Turns out that it’s going to be Apple and Google who will usher in the future of browsers, and who will get to determine just what that future of browsers are going to look like:

Google Chrome, starting from scratch

To put it mildly, things just got a whole lot more exciting.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

49 thoughts on “Google Chrome and the future of browsers”

  1. Chrome scares me a bit. If we’re building such unholy crap that each tab needs its own process, we’re doing something very wrong with the web. I’m a fan of the whole cloud use-anywhere technology, but if you have to write an OS-like browser to make your apps work, you need to either make you code lighter, or just write a desktop app…

  2. Wasn’t mentioned above, and I am totally speculating, but I think Chrome is being released as a response to IE8 being able to block AdSense ads:

    “The Internet Explorer 8 browser’s InPrivate setting lets users access websites without disclosing their browsing habits, which websites need to be able to do to deliver targeted advertising. This is a business Google has just moved into through its acquisition of DoubleClick.”

    …why do I get the feeling that IE will block AdSense ads but NOT Microsoft’s? Hmmmmmm…

  3. Chris, good write up.

    Indeed, it might just be Google and Apple driving the web forward but ultimately, it will be the users who have the last word. Like Gears, if the browser does not get enough market share, it will be pointless.

    I, however, am hoping that the name Google behind such a browser will do something that Mozilla could not. Overcome IE domain in the domestic browser area.

    Imagine this… *closes eyes* a world in which the browser with bigger market share is powered by webkit! *opens eyes* That’d be incredible, speaking as a webdeveloper. 🙂

    Exciting indeed, Chris…

  4. Chrome will mean different things depending on who/what you are. The one thing it does mean to everyone though is that the Internet is the operating system, and the clouds are moving closer to earh.

    You are Apple;

    This means that if it were not enough of a conflict of interest (Iphone VS Google’s Android) to have Google CEO Eric Schmidt sit on your board – It is now. Look for Schmidt to resign sometime in the next six months.

    If you are Microsoft;

    This means that if you ever considered making Internet Explorer open source in the past, now is the time… You can not afford to wait, not even another minute. Expect Microsoft to make Vaporware like noise over the next few months about cloud widgets to give IE closer ties to cloud based initiatives.

    If you are Yahoo;

    you need to buy Mozilla.

    If you are Firefox;

    Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer…yes continue with your Google revenue deal, but learn how to monetize your Browser outside of a paid search deal. Leverage your large user base to form “spin-off” type “power of the crowd” businesses. Note to Firefox, hey you guys ARE a social network…you just haven’t figured that out yet.

    If you are Sun;

    Realize that Java is even less relevant every day. First we kicked you out of client side computing because you were a resource hog. Realize that Java will now continue to be less and less relevant on the Server. What a waste of a good company… McNealy must have got hit in the head with one to many hockey pucks.

    If you are a social network;

    “social networks” would follow along with users in the browser. Truth be told, we thought it would be Facebook, or even more likely Firefox that would lead in this initiative. So if you are a social network, you need to know now Chrome is the first step in a series of moves that will make it unnecessary for your peeeps to ever visit your site (directly) again.

    If you are an application developer;

    Life used to be simple, eh? You knew that you should be developing applications for Windows, because that is where the 100’s of millions of users were. Fast forward, and now you need to choose what platforms to support, and when. Of course it makes sense to develop for Windows still, but Apple now has a mass of millions of Mac OSx users, and if it a browser based app, write once for Safari, and it should work without much adaptation on the Iphone. There are over a billion cell phones in use world wide, however every phone requires writing to separately (yes even all those different flavors of Java are different phone to phone. Suddenly with Android coming, and a matching desktop browser you need to be here.

    Lastly if you are a consumer;

    There is always a bottleneck somewhere … Think back 5-10 years ago, before what we now refer to broadband… Dial up was painffulllllyy slow, and when you tried to browse, the bottleneck was in your “last mile” connectivity. Once you got broadband, the lag time in reaching a site was likely in your PC (not enough ram, slow processor, etc). Before either of those issues though it was the software that was not “smart” enough to keep up with the ever faster CPU’s being created.

    Look for Chrome to optimize all these new “cloud” based application initiatives like Google Gears, etc. This is just another nail in the coffin for desktop based computing. In 10 years, likely 90%+ of your applications will reside somewhere outside of your home or workplace – but certainly not on your desktop.

  5. Agreed Agreed Agreed

    Throughout the comic and the announcement I get a very strong sense of frustration in the developement of other browsers. Without naming them they clearly have IE and FF in their sights.

    They may not be aiming for market share but they are (through competition) trying to raise the bar on browser standards – they influence on FF is obviously very limited.

    This announcement says as much about Google as it does about Mozilla.

  6. Stephen, that sounds like the complaints about Linux being a monolitic kernel, instead of microkernel. I think a process per tab is just going to work. It is easy to mantain, and you can let some job go to shared libs. Even worst, multi-cores are going to be at desktop. I know, I know… they are just trying to sell more chips with all the multi-core hype, but they are going to be there.

    The question is, what’s the easiest way to get stability, usability, etc.

  7. You got it dead on, previous commenter: Google Chrome will not support user scripts/greasemonkey, or extensions (like adblock). Google Chrome: If you want the web to look like it does in Safari (which nobody tests on it seems) and have all the ads which you forgot existed when using Firefox.

    But hey, now the futurists will come out of the woodwork and claim this will ‘revolutionize’ your ‘online life’ (e.g.) even though it actually removes PREVIOUS revolutions, like greasemonkey and adblock. It used to be called “remixing the web”, but now it’ll be “the web, it supposedly doesn’t crash! we promise!”.

    I think that some of the ideas are interesting, but most (if not all) already existed as Mozilla bugs. For example, one thread per tab is, but process per tab is

    I will not be surprised when people incorrectly claim that already-existing plans for Mozilla 2 (Firefox 4) are “inspired” by Google Chrome.

  8. Nice post, Chris.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if all those people who are bashing Chrome even before having seen and tested it had no clue about computer science at all. I for one have and I can tell that from a technological point of view, Chrome makes a LOT of sense. From a business point of view (strategic positioning) it also makes a lot of sense – for Google – less so for end-users, but it doesn’t hurt either (more choices, OSS browser).

    I agree that this move will probably have a huge impact on future developments in the web and OS areas. Probably a bigger impact than the masses currently realize. Google Chrome is definitely not “just another browser”, it’s an assembly of several well-known concepts that together make a whole new browser concept which will enable a better, seamless user experience and new kinds of very powerful applications.

    I think also Apple/Safari will need to adapt to Chrome’s “WebOS” concept (as it looks like they only share the WebKit with Chrome), though the Safari camp doesn’t seem to be in the cross hairs and tends to be much more agile than IE/Microsoft.

    Interesting times coming up! Looking forward to it 🙂

    See my blog post for some further thoughts:

  9. @hectorpal I’m not saying it won’t work – I’m saying that catering to bloated webapps will encourage people to build more of them.

  10. I am scared too.
    Indeed it’s good that Chrome uses Webkit and that the user experience will improve.
    Yet the society will be facing a problem of duopoly between Microsoft and Google. Google and Mozilla are partners. Google is still moving forward to controlling search engines and web platforms. By the time it will be prosecuted by antitrust measures it will be too late.
    You can contribute as I do to diminish IE market share while keeping Firefox market share by pushing IE users to switch to Firefox.

  11. Good writeup. I like that you spoke about the happenings behind the scenes with the companies involved and not just the techie side of things.

    For regular users (non-techies), I think Chrome will be excellent. Many of the regular users I work with have finally switched to Firefox only recently but they don’t do anything with add-ons (let alone greasemonkey). They aren’t as concerned about AdBlocking, page specific scripts or even under the hood tweaking. What they seem to care about most is an intuitive interface and quick web browsing. I think Chrome will provide this with Google’s experience and Webkit’s rendering.

    At the very least, another well backed browser pushing for standards can only be good for eveyone else. Plus the fact that Chrome and V8 are open source is just plain icing on the cake for me.

  12. More browsers to choose from is a good thing. We’re moving away from a mono-culture — which means Microsoft is going to have to play nice…

    Firefox really isn’t all that broken. For most users, it’s pretty solid. The power users with lots of add-ons probably feel the most pain from instability, but that’s a tiny piece of the overall market. They can take their time fixing it up. A little competition is good.

    In the end, I imagine that Mozilla is going to be the project that pulls in contributions from the community, whereas Chrome is going to be more-or-less whatever Google dishes out.

  13. Lack of add-ons/scripts/ad-block/GreaseMonkey – well that keeps Firefox’s USP for the tiny number of users who care about that type of thing. I don’t see it holding back Chrome for the average user. I also think that mass use of ad-blocking would have underisable side-effects (ads that appeared to be part of the page contents) as sites sought a way to make money.

    Safari 4 already supports the ability to create Fluid style application specific browsers, running as a separate process. I don’t mean that in the ‘Safari already does it’ way (Fluid and AIR did it earlier) but that this shows signs of becoming a standard feature.

    I don’t see an Apple/Google conflict myself – Apple and Google continue to partner on more things (Maps, YouTube, search, WebKit) as much as they compete (.Mac vs Google apps, iPhone/Android).

    If the idea is that Chrome is an application runtime that threatens the native OS, the rise of web apps is something that everyone sees coming. It is both threat and opportunity. If it’s not Google, it will be Microsoft or Yahoo – better to come from a partner than an enemy. Especially one who still locks non-IE browsers out from the Ajax version of Exchange webmail.

    Note that Apple have also been proactive in implementing HTML 5 and CSS animation features into WebKit that make developing ‘desktop-like’ applications easier, together with backing SproutCore. That tells me they know which way the wind blows.

    They also know it’s at least a decade before browser apps will be able to touch the likes of iDVD, Final Cut Studio, or Garageband. HTML 5 gives us a video tag. Apps like those will need pretty much the full Quicktime API, and I can see that one taking a long time to become standardised (implementing it probably be easier).

    A final thought – to really start a revolution, we need more choice that JavaScript. On .NET or the JVM I have language choice. On Cocoa I can think of at least 4 languages I can use in preference to Obj-C. On the server – the choice is huge. The browser runtime is the only one that dictates a choice on the developer, and using a pre-compiler like GWT or SproutCore does not strike me as the right long term answer.

  14. @AFPR Amazing breakup for all stakeholders

    Additionally I would say that Microsoft needs to analyze the impact on Windows, not just IE. This is no longer about browser but about the an entire marketplace spread between desktop, mobile and web.

    Google Chrome has faster JavaScript VM, better memory management, better Windows UI rendering, faster text layout and rendering, and intelligent page navigation in comparison to other more widely adopted browsers. When combined with Google Gears technology, this is as close as you can get to replicating the desktop experience with web applications

    More details on my blog

  15. @Daniel Mettler
    Safari shares the WebKit not only with Chrome. Konqueror (the seventh most used browser) already uses this engine. Epiphany is switching from Gecko to Webkit. Here is a longer list. You can expect it to grow with the adoption of mobile browsing.
    So Webkit has a bright future on all platforms but Windows…

  16. @Félicien Breton: I know the history of WebKit. I guess I should have phrased it differently as I meant it the other way round, i.e. that AFAIK Chrome and Safari have the WebKit in common only (which is a lot already, but not everything that makes Chrome).

    All in all, chances are that Safari, Firefox, Konqueror, Epiphany, IE etc. will catch-up with Chrome’s concepts regarding better stability and speed, though rather in an evolutionary than revolutionary way. That is, they’ll have to, in order to not vanish. We probably all agree that webapps will play a major role in the forseeable future of the web, not just content. Not even Microsoft is powerful enough to stop this tendency.

  17. Well Google Chrome has brough new standards to browsers, the V8 engine and tabs “sandbox” concepts are brilliant. Let’s wait and see what more will it bring as further development proceeds.

  18. I say that Google Chrome is excellent for speed, performance, and security. I was very impressed with Google Chrome and enjoy using it, however I just had to switch to Apple Safari. Both are based on Webkit and I believe that Webkit is the best rendering engine for any web browser. Apple does have it’s reputation for the iPhone being still the most popular and unmatched mobile device. Apple Safari, even though Firefox took control, has been gaining more market share then ever and Google Chrome as well.
    My point is, Apple Safari should be the king of all web browsers when it comes to ease of use, performance, and speed. Google Chrome definitely takes over speed, however when it comes to their UI and structure of their web browser, Safari takes the lead.
    You may read my blog post here about my opinion with Google Chrome and Apple Safari:

  19. Chrome's Real opponent will be OPERA. Its one of the fastest and powerful browser (yet bit-infamaous) with almost all the features as Firefox and IE.

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