Musings on Chrome, the rebirth of the location bar and privacy in the cloud

Imagine a browser of the web, by the web, and for the web. Not simply a thick client application that simply opens documents with the http:// protocol instead of file://, but one that runs web applications (efficiently!), that plays the web, that connects people across the boundaries of the silos and gives them local-like access to remote data.

It might not be Chrome, but it’s a damn near approximation, given what people today.

Take a step back. You can see the relics of desktop computing in our applications’ file menus… and we can intuit the assumptions that the original designer must have made about the user, her context and the interaction expectations she brought with her:

Firefox Menubar

This is not a start menu or a Dock. This is a document-driven menubar that’s barely changed since Netscape Communicator.

Indeed, the browser is a funny thing, because it’s really just a wrapper for someone else’s content or someone’s else’s application. That’s why it’s not about “features“. It’s all about which features, especially for developers.

It’s a hugely powerful place to insert oneself: between a person and the vast expanse that is the Open Web. Better yet: to be the conduit through which anyone projects herself on to the web, or reaches into the digital void to do something.

So if you were going to design a new browser, how would you handle the enormity of that responsibility? How would you seize the monument of that opportunity and create something great?

Well, for starters, you’d probably want to think about that first run experience — what it’s like to get behind the wheel for the very time with a newly minted driver’s permit — with the daunting realization that you can now go anywhere you please…! Which is of course awesome, until you realize that you have no idea where to go first!

Historically, the solution has been to flip-flop between portals and search boxes, and if we’ve learned anything from Google’s shockingly austere homepage, it comes down to recognizing that the first step of getting somewhere is expressing some notion of where you want to go:

Camino. Start

InquisitorThe problem is that the location field has, up until recently, been fairly inert and useless. With Spotlight-influenced interfaces creeping into the browser (like David Watanabe’s recently acquired Inquisitor Safari plugin — now powered by Yahoo! Search BOSS — or the flyout in Flock that was inspired by it) it’s clear that browsers can and should provide more direction and assistance to get people going. Not everyone’s got a penchant for remembering URLs (or RFCs) like Tantek’s.

This kind of predictive interface, however, has only slowly made its way into the location bar, like fish being washed ashore and gradually sprouting legs. Eventually they’ll learn to walk and breath normally, but until then, things might look a little awkward. But yes, dear reader, things do change.

So you can imagine, having recognized this trend, Google went ahead and combined the search box and the location field in Chrome and is now pushing the location bar as the starting place, as well as where to do your searching:

Chrome Start

This change to such a fundamental piece of real estate in the browser has profound consequences on both the typical use of the browser as well as security models that treat the visibility of the URL bar as sacrosanct (read: phishing):

Omnibox

The URL bar is dead! Long live the URL bar!

While cats like us know intuitively how to use the location bar in combination with URLs to gets us to where to we want to go, that practice is now outmoded. Instead we type anything into the “box” and have some likely chance that we’re going to end up close to something interesting. Feeling lucky?

But there’s something else behind all this that I think is super important to realize… and that’s that our fundamental notions and expectations of privacy on the web have to change or will be changed for us. Either we do without tools that augment our cognitive faculties or we embrace them, and in so doing, shim open a window on our behaviors and our habits so that computers, computing environments and web service agents can become more predictive and responsive to them, and in so doing, serve us better. So it goes.

Underlying these changes are new legal concepts and challenges, spelled out in Google’s updated EULA and Privacy Policy… heretofore places where few feared to go, least of all browser manufacturers:

5. Use of the Services by you

5.1 In order to access certain Services, you may be required to provide information about yourself (such as identification or contact details) as part of the registration process for the Service, or as part of your continued use of the Services. You agree that any registration information you give to Google will always be accurate, correct and up to date.

. . .

12. Software updates

12.1 The Software which you use may automatically download and install updates from time to time from Google. These updates are designed to improve, enhance and further develop the Services and may take the form of bug fixes, enhanced functions, new software modules and completely new versions. You agree to receive such updates (and permit Google to deliver these to you) as part of your use of the Services.

It’s not that any of this is unexpected or Draconian: it is what it is, if it weren’t like this already.

Each of us will eventually need to choose a data brokers or two in the future and agree to similar terms and conditions, just like we’ve done with banks and credit card providers; and if we haven’t already, just as we have as we’ve done in embracing webmail.

Hopefully visibility into Chrome’s source code will help keep things honest, and also provide the means to excise those features, or to redirect them to brokers or service providers of our choosing, but it’s inevitable that effective cloud computing will increasingly require more data from and about us than we’ve previously felt comfortable giving. And the crazy thing is that a great number of us (yes, including me!) will give it. Willingly. And eagerly.

But think one more second about the ramifications (see Matt Cutts) of Section 12 up there about Software Updates: by using Chrome, you agree to allow Google to update the browser. That’s it: end of story. You want to turn it off? Disconnect from the web… in the process, rendering Chrome nothing more than, well, chrome (pun intended).

Welcome to cloud computing. The future has arrived and is arriving.

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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.