By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, September 3, 2008 at 12:58 am
(UPDATE! I’m conducting a poll about Chrome–please go here to take it, and to get a recap of all of Technologizer’s Chrome coverage.)
When Google says that Chrome “is far from done,” it’s not engaging in aw-shucks modesty. This browser is missing some of the basic stuff that I thought made a browser a browser in 2008, such as RSS support and the ability to zoom entire Web pages, not just text. It can’t be customized through extensions or even run the Google Toolbar. It explores almost none of the fascinating possibilities opened up by the world’s dominant provider of Web services building its own browser. If the question is whether serious consumers of Web content should dump whatever browser they’re using at the moment for Chrome, the answer is “probably not.”
And yet…using Chrome is an exciting experience–the most fun I’ve had with something new from Google in a long time. It’s exciting partly because of what Google has done with Chrome, partly because of what it plans to do, and partly because of what it could do.
And actually, it’s exciting partly because of what Google hasn’t done. Its user interface is the UI equivalent of the plain-white Google homepage: There’s almost nothing there that’s not absolutely necessary. The use of space also reminds me of the disciplined way Apple crams functionality into an amazingly thin computer, MP3 player, or phone: Chrome brings the tabs up into the space where the Windows menu bar usually lives, and reduces the menu structure to two icons that sit to the right of the address bar, which doubles as a search bar. It’s all done in the interest of opening up as much real estate as possible for the sites and services you use in Chrome, and almost all of it works.
Elegant little minimalist touches are tucked into the browser in multiple places. For instance, it’s the first browser I’ve ever seen that lets you manage downloads without opening another window to do so.
And for a browser that Google is saying was designed from scratch, it’s full of ideas borrowed from elsewhere, but Google knew what ideas to steal, such as Firefox 3.0’s unobtrusive bar (rather than a pesky dialog box) that asks if you want to save passwords.
And running Web apps well is clearly Chrome’s primary design goal. A feature called “Create Application Shortcuts” didn’t always work when I tried it, but the idea is so brilliant I love it anyway: It lets you add icons for Web apps to Windows’ Start menu, Quick Launch bar, and desktop. Use an icon to open a service such as Google Calendar or Zoho Write, and it loads into a window that has none of Chrome’s buttons or tools. Web apps have never looked so much like desktop applications–it’s an idea that seems incredibly obvious once you see it, but as far as I know, Chrome’s the first browser to implement it.
It’s way too early to declare that Chrome is really a rival to Windows rather than IE, but if traditional desktop applications continue to migrate to the Web and Google is serious about making Chrome the best browser to run them in, the idea of Chrome morphing into the Google OS that folks have talked about for years isn’t crazy. (I have some more thoughts about that in this analysis piece I wrote for PC World today.)
My biggest disappointment with Chrome in this first version is that it includes no integration with Google services other than letting you search Google from the address bar, a feature that was sort of mandatory. It doesn’t let you get at the Google Bookmarks you’ve stored on the Web; it’s got a Web History search feature, but it applies only to your Web wanderings in that particular copy of Chrome, even though Google can keep track of every single page you visit in any browser you use while logged into Google.
There’s huge potential for Google to tie Chrome together with Gmail and Google Calendar and Google Maps and Google Reader in creative ways, and I hope that fear of antitrust issues a la Microsoft’s troubles in the 1990s doesn’t stop Google from trying all of them. (If it worries about mucking up Chrome with too many features that not everyone wants, perhaps it can offer them as extensions.) Microsoft has tried to meld its desktop apps and Web services together for well over a decade now, but the results have almost been disappointing; I think Google’s in a great position to do what Microsoft never has. And the fact that Chrome is open source should help address any concerns about anti-competitive practices.
When it comes to new Google services, I’ve learned to be deeply skeptical: As wonderful as its best stuff is, the company has a long track record of launching interesting things and them neglecting them. It’s entirely possible that a year from now, Chrome will be no more relevant than, say, Apple’s Safari for Windows. After reading Steve Levy’s excellent story about the making of Chrome at Wired, though, I think that chances are high that Google will work really hard to make Chrome live up to its considerable potential. (I can afford to be patient–I’m not going to be an everyday Chrome user until the Mac edition comes out, and the company isn’t saying a thing about when to expect that version.)
Google has an awful lot riding on Chrome: The mere fact that the company has entered the browser market unleashes a torrent of questions, scenarios, and concepts that it’s more or less obligated to respond to. Whether Chrome succeeds or fails, it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun to watch what happens.