Chrome: Here’s What Shines
- Navigation The “omnibox” combines the search and address boxes, and pop-up thumbnails show your most-visited destinations.
- Availability The open source software was launched in over 40 languages, but Windows only; Mac and Linux versions are in the works.
- Reliability Tabs run in isolation, so if one crashes, no others are affected. Also, you can drag tabs to create new windows.
- Privacy Browsing history is now searchable and editable; incognito mode offers private surfing.
One key change they had in mind was something called a multiprocess architecture, the system that helps the computer keep going when an application crashes or freezes. Why not extend that idea to browsers, so if something crashes in a tab, the other tabs are unperturbed? Also, for that matter, why not set things up so that you can drag an existing tab to create a new window? Starting from scratch had other advantages. You could design it to look cleaner and run faster, the twin dogmas of the Google corporate religion. Around June 2006, Goodger, Fisher, and another former Mozillan named Brian Ryner cooked up a small prototype. Their first big decision involved the choice of a rendering engine, the software that processes the HTML code of a Web page into the stuff that appears on your screen. The two major open source options were Gecko, used by Firefox, and WebKit, which powers Apple’s Safari browser. The word was that WebKit (which had already been adopted by the group developing Google’s Android mobile operating system) could be nasty fast three times as fast as Gecko, in one example. In a few weeks, they had a simple application running WebKit on Windows that kept going even when a Web page crashed a tab. Early on, Goodger recalls, “our prototypes had a picture of a little tab that was unhappy, and if a tab died you’d see that. It was the first piece of personality in the product.” Not long after that, Brin and Page came by to check in on the furtive beginnings of their browser. “I remember sitting at my desk, which at the time had a stuffed snake running along the back of it,” says Pam Greene, an engineer on the team. “Sergey was bouncing on one of those exercise balls, watching Darin give a demo, and petting the snake.” No one will say exactly when the browser project got the official green light. Pichai recalls an executive meeting when Schmidt no longer seemed as opposed as he had been. If Google did go for it, the CEO said, the team had to produce something very different from Explorer and Firefox. In addition, a Google browser would have to be fast, and it would have to be open source. Which, of course, was exactly what the team already had in mind. In any case, by the autumn of 2006 the line between unofficial concept and formal project had been crossed. “One Friday, there was a meeting called with like an hour’s notice,” engineer Brett Wilson says. “We were told, ‘The management is thinking about doing our own browser what do you think about that?’ Everybody was a combination of excited and freaked out.” Part of the freak-out was they knew full well that building a competitive browser was a massive undertaking. There were also mixed feelings because of the group’s attachment to Firefox, an icon of open source development and a hedge against Microsoft’s dominance. “The fear was that people were going to read this as sabotaging Firefox,” says Erik Kay, an engineer who joined the team in October 2006. The Googlers were mollified by the fact that their browser would be 100 percent open source: Google’s innovations could potentially find their way into the Mozilla codebase. “We really want to make Firefox successful, as well as other open source browsers,” Upson says. As part of Google’s Firefox effort, Pichai had been meeting with Mozilla head Mitchell Baker, and at some point he told her about Google’s project. Baker now says a Google browser is a mixed bag for Mozilla and Firefox. She sees the effort as a vindication of Mozilla’s belief that browser choice is essential. “If Google comes up with some good new ideas, that’s really great for users,” she says. “Competition spurs the best in us.” But she also understands that many of her users will download Google’s app. “We expect people will try it and come back,” she says. “Mozilla exists because independence is important.”
When deciding what buttons and features to include, the team began with the mental exercise of eliminating everything, then figuring out what to restore. The back button? No-brainer. The forward button? Less essential, but it survived. But if you’re a big fan of the browser status bar that meter that tells you what percent of a page has loaded you’re out of luck with Chrome. And then there was the bookmarks bar. At first, engineers thought they could kill it. Chrome introduces several new navigation methods, including one where the browser figures out where you want to go next with no typing required. And when you do type something in, you use the “omnibox,” a combination of address bar and search box: Just tell it what you’re thinking and it delivers a Web address, search results, or popular destinations that fit your query, all in non-intrusive text underneath the box. It’s a bulked-up version of “I’m Feeling Lucky.” Still, user tests showed that some people just love to navigate by clicking on the bookmark bar. The compromise: If the user has previously configured the bar in IE or Firefox, Chrome will import the setup. Otherwise, users won’t have a bookmark bar unless they choose to. It’s incredible that something as potentially game-changing as a Google browser has stayed under wraps for two years. It wasn’t until mid-2007, about a year into the project, that the team let employees outside the group even see what they were doing. At the first of a series of Tech Talks featuring the current prototype (events designed, in part, as a way of recruiting internally for the ever-growing team) the reaction was volcanic. Googlers broke into spontaneous applause when various features, like dragging a tab into a new window, were demo’d. As the number of people who knew about Chrome increased, the inevitable occurred word did leak out to a blog or two, yet nothing came of those stray items. No reporter put it all together. “I think it was because rumors about Google browsers have been around so long it’s like sightings of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster,” Upson says. On the eve of the launch, Pichai shares some of his ambitions for Chrome. How many people will use it? “Many millions,” he says. “I want my mom to use it. I want my dad to use it.” The Google imprimatur doesn’t assure success, but Pichai believes that even if Chrome doesn’t snare huge market share, its innovations will improve the landscape. “We benefit directly if the Web gets better,” he says. As launch approaches, the team has just moved into new space in a freshly renovated building on the Google campus, and there’s another all-hands gathering in the biggest conference room available. It’s standing room only. Milk and cookies are provided. After some initial business, Rakowski hands the floor over to Goodger. The rumpled engineer talks about the benefits of making Chrome an open source product the code will be publicly released and a community will emerge to determine the browser’s evolution. “We’ll be able to scale our testing efforts,” he says. “It’ll enable people to do things we haven’t thought of. And it’ll generate trust that we’re not doing something evil.” As the meeting breaks up, the energy level is over the top, and not just because of the sugar rush. The Chrome team is close to unleashing the product that Google was destined to create. First, though, there are five bugs to swat. Senior writer Steven Levy (email@example.com) also writes about Jay Walker’s in the October issue of Wired.
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