Google stages coup against Windows 8 with Chrome OS-like update for 'Metro'

Chrome 32 adds several major features previewed last fall, patches 11 security bugs

Google yesterday revamped the Windows 8 "Metro" app version of its new Chrome 32 browser to resemble Chrome OS, the operating system that powers Chromebooks.

It also promoted several major changes in Chrome's "stable" channel that it had earlier trumpeted in rougher builds of the browser -- including audio indicators on tabs, a more aggressive anti-malware blocker and a parental spying tool -- and patched 11 security vulnerabilities.

On Windows 8 and 8.1, Chrome 32 debuted the previously-previewed refresh of the browser that runs in the "Modern," nee "Metro" mode, the touch-based effort by Microsoft to move customers beyond the traditional classic desktop familiar to billions for decades.

Under Microsoft's rules, the user must select a browser as the operating system's default to run in the Metro user interface (UI).

Once that's done -- not an easy chore according to a thread on Google's support forum, where users who just upgraded said they could not launch the browser in Metro -- Chrome essentially reproduces the Chrome OS UI, complete with the ability to open multiple browser windows; run Chrome apps such as Any.DO and Pocket; and manage a taskbar that's automatically populated with icons for YouTube, Gmail and other Google services.

Google has made no secret of its push to subvert devices running rivals' operating systems and turn them into pseudo Chromebooks by shifting features from Chrome OS to Chrome the browser. A year ago, for example, Google started baking parts of QuickOffice, a popular iOS and Android app substitute for Microsoft Office, into both Chrome OS and the Chrome browser.

Analysts have viewed the strategy as part and parcel of Google's desire to insert itself and its core services -- search, mapping, email and others -- onto as many systems, both PCs and mobile devices, as possible to optimize traffic and associated ad revenue.

The plan has been stymied on PCs and Macs by the lack of Chrome-compatible desktop apps, which number fewer than 40, although there are many more standard Web apps that will run in Chrome tabs.

But Google has a huge lead over rival Mozilla on Metro. A Chrome version for the new Microsoft UI debuted in June 2012, and has been updated several times since. Meanwhile, Mozilla has repeatedly postponed its Metro edition of Firefox and for now has aimed at a March ship date.

On the desktop, Chrome 32 added indicators to browser tabs that show which pages are generating audio, accessing the computer's camera or playing on a nearby television using the company's Chromecast dongle. Customers had long requested a "noisy tabs" feature so they did not have to blindly search dozens of open tabs for the one that had auto-loaded a video with the sound cranked to maximum.

Google also enhanced Chrome's malware detector in version 32 after running trials since October in "Canary," the pre-public build meant for the hardiest users. The new anti-malware blocker is more aggressive than earlier iterations, detecting more malware forms and taking away users' ability to skip the warning and continue to download the potentially-vicious file.

Although the Safe Browsing API is available to other browser makers -- Mozilla relies on it for Firefox -- Google also uses additional technology, dubbed Content Agnostic Malware Protection (CAMP), to decide if a file is potentially dangerous or definitely legitimate.

Also in October, Google had previewed something it called "supervised users," a monitoring tool designed for parents who want to keep tabs on where their children browse.

Originally designed for Chrome OS and family sharing of a single notebook, Google brought it to Chrome 32 yesterday. Parents can establish subsidiary accounts in Chrome, assign those to other family members, then use a special dashboard to see where they went on the Web, block specific sites and review requests for access to restricted URLs.

Along with the new features and the usual collection of stability and performance fixes, Chrome 32 patched 11 security vulnerabilities, including 4 rated "high" that triggered bounties from its bug reporting program.

Of the $8,000 total paid out to researchers, $5,000 went to Joao Lucas Melo Brasio for reporting a flaw that let an attacker trigger an unauthorized sync with the victim's Google account, which would expose not only bookmarks and browsing history, but also site passwords.

Google paid out over $350,000 in bounties and contest prizes in 2013, slightly less than the record set in 2012.

Chrome 32 also included the latest version of Adobe's Flash Player, which was patched yesterday to quash a pair of critical vulnerabilities.

Those who haven't tried Google's browser on the desktop can download Chrome 32 for Windows, OS X and Linux from Google's website. Current users can let the automatic updater grab the new version, which will be installed after a restart of the browser.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Google stages coup against Windows 8 with Chrome OS-like update for 'Metro'" was originally published by Computerworld.

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